The New York Jets have a problem—a good problem.
The addition of Chris Johnson to their already stout stable of running backs gives them a surplus of talent at the position. Even through periods of injury, talent will always be on hand—at the cost of leaving a player worthy of a starting role on the bench.
The Jets added free agent running back Chris Johnson with the expectation that he will be a glorified "spell" back for the incumbent Chris Ivory. Using his trademark speed to complement Ivory's contrary bruising style of play, Johnson gives the Jets an ideal running back to pair with their workhorse.
It has been assumed that Ivory will be the primary runner based on both his style of play and how well he finished the season. Despite getting off to a slow start while recovering from hamstring issues, Ivory seemed to get stronger as the season went on and finished with a 4.6 yards-per-carry average.
As impressive as those numbers were, though, 2013 is in the past. Ivory enters camp as the presumed starter, but the Jets would not have a problem giving the bulk of the carries to Johnson if it results in more wins—especially in a year with heightened expectations.
We already know what Chris Ivory is capable of, especially when making yards after contact and running between the tackles. The fact that he was able to produce such a high yards-per-carry average while coming off an injury and playing behind one of the worst run-blocking offensive lines in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus, is a testament to how effective he was after first contact.
Not even the mighty Adrian Peterson was as effective as Ivory after contact last year, per PFF:
Even more importantly, Ivory's role as the early-down back makes him an ideal drive-sustainer that an offense can be built around. He may not get as much SportsCenter airtime as Johnson, but Ivory is much more reliable on a down-by-down basis, as his consistency helps to keep an offense in favorable down-and-distance situations.
Both runners may wind up with comparable yards-per-carry averages, but Ivory's consistency and ability are what make him the go-to player on any given down.
After giving him a long-term extension following the 2010 season, the Tennessee Titans tried to build their offense around Johnson. As talented as Johnson is, this was a plan that was always destined to fail because of Johnson's inability to be a sustaining runner. As noted by Jim Wyatt of the Tennessean, even Johnson himself admitted that he was only going to be as consistent as the players around him, specifically his offensive line.
The occasional long touchdown run was nice, but it never outweighed all of the negative plays that put the Titans in unfavorable situations, again and again.
The mediocrity the Titans have displayed since making the playoffs in 2008 are a reflection of how trying to build an offense around Johnson—as opposed to putting him in a complementary role—is a recipe for failure.
Instead of swinging for the fences on every play, the Jets (and just about any other team) would be better off hitting consistent singles and doubles and keeping the strikeouts to a minimum. With a young quarterback in place, avoiding long down-and-distance situations as often as possible is key.
These are fantastic traits to have as a bruising early-down back, but is it enough to keep CJ2K on the bench?
Johnson has yet to repeat his epic 2,000-yard performance from 2009, but there is no doubt that he is still one of the most dangerous running backs in the NFL who is capable of scoring from anywhere on the field—something the Jets got a good taste of during a must-win game in 2012.
Because of his much different style, it would be easy to paint Ivory as nothing but a brute-force power back who is anything but explosive. However, Ivory is a much more dynamic runner than he is given credit for. Throughout his career, he has made plenty of long, explosive runs that would make Johnson blush.
Ivory does not have record-breaking 40-times to brag about, but he can be a terror in the second level with his physicality. Linebackers and defensive lineman already have a hard enough time bringing him down on their own, never mind a much smaller defensive back.
After all, does this long run from Johnson look much different than this long gallop by Ivory?
Of course, Ivory does not have the rare extra gear that Johnson possesses, but he is more than capable of creating explosive runs on his own by using his innate ability to break tackles. On this run against the New Orleans Saints, not only does he break an early tackle to erase a missed block, but he accelerates quickly to outrun the secondary and generates 52 yards:
Some shoddy run defense by the Saints helped him be successful on that play, but this is also a play that Ivory created without much blocking help. This is an explosive run that Johnson may never have made on his own because of his relative inability to break tackles with such ease.
There is, however, one way in which Ivory can lose his job to Johnson: failing to stay healthy.
Ivory has developed a reputation for being one of the more injury-prone runners in the league. Johnson, on the other hand, has (rather quietly) been perhaps the most durable runner in the league when taking his workload into consideration. The fact that he has been so resistant to injury at his size is nothing short of remarkable.
Ivory's ugly injury history, on the other hand, is much less of a mystery. His bruising, physical style punishes his own body almost as much as it does to that of the poor defenders who are tasked with bringing him down.
Despite seeing far less playing time during his tenure with both the Saints and the Jets, Ivory has missed a lot more time than the more-experienced Johnson. Ivory was dealing with injuries as recently as last season, as a nagging hamstring ailment caused him to lose the starting job to Bilal Powell for the first two months of the year.
Perhaps time and wear on his body will start to catch up to the seasoned Johnson, but the odds of Ivory outlasting him—especially if Ivory is given a heavier workload to start the season—are unlikely.
Still, if Ivory can find a way to stay healthy over the course of a full season (including training camp), he remains the best option to handle the bulk of the workload as the Jets' go-to runner. Not only is Ivory a better sustaining runner who will keep the Jets in favorable down-and-distance situations, but he is more than capable of hitting a few home runs of his own.
After spending the first three years of his career buried on the Saints depth chart, Ivory has been given the opportunity he had always wanted (and deserved) with the Jets. This is his time, not Chris Johnson's, to prove that he is capable of being a workhorse back.
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