Can a Healthy Chris Johnson Recapture Past Glory with the New York Jets?

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Can a Healthy Chris Johnson Recapture Past Glory with the New York Jets?
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

There was a time when Chris Johnson was considered arguably the best running back in the National Football League. In 2009, Johnson became the sixth player in NFL history to gain over 2,000 yards on the ground in a single season.

However, diminishing returns and an increasing salary led the Tennessee Titans to release Johnson earlier this year. Now with the New York Jets, the 28-year-old is confident he'll be able to return to past form.

Frankly, whether or not that's true depends on which form we're talking about.

It at least appears that Johnson will be ready to go for training camp. After undergoing offseason surgery to repair a torn meniscus, Johnson told Dan Hanzus of NFL.com he was "pretty much cleared" to practice fully. "I wouldn't label myself at 100 percent, but very close," Johnson said. "In the 90s."

However, the Jets have made it clear from day one (at least publicly) that the lead back role won't just be handed to Johnson. In fact, New York running backs coach Anthony Lynn recently told Dom Cosentino of NJ.com that the team plans to be judicious with Johnson's usage this season.

"He's got some miles on him, so we're going to have to be strategic in how we use him, and when we use him, to keep him fresh so that he can be the explosive guy that I know that he can be," said Lynn. 

As Hanzus reported, it would appear that Johnson didn't get the memo: "Once the season starts and once we're playing and I'm doing my thing, I'm pretty sure if I'm making plays they're going to want to keep handing the ball off to me. If they want me to continue making plays, I'm pretty sure I can't do that if I'm on the sideline."

In fact, Johnson recently told Seth Walder of the New York Daily News he feels he can make it all the way back to the top of the proverbial mountain.

"I’d just retire and not play anymore if I didn’t feel like I was still capable of being a 2,000-yard back. I know I have the ability. I don’t feel like I’m getting older or I lost a step. I still feel good. I still feel explosive. I just know the type of player I am, I’d never sell myself short."

That's a bold statement from Johnson, especially since it's been some time since we saw that 2,000-yard running back in action.

Gary Davenport/Bleacher Report

Yes, Johnson has topped 1,000 yards on the ground in all six of his NFL seasons, and over that span, only Adrian Peterson of the Minnesota Vikings has gained more rushing yards. But since that 2,000-yard season, things have gone steadily downhill.

Johnson's 2011 season was marred by an extended holdout (and the contract that eventually led to his release). He rebounded somewhat in 2012, but 2013 brought with it a career-low 3.9 yards per carry.

A look at Johnson's ranking in Pro Football Focus' "elusive rating" (subscription required), which measures "a runner's success beyond the point of being helped by his blockers," shows a steady and annual decline from Johnson in recent years.

Gary Davenport/Bleacher Report

Mind you, this isn't to say that Johnson's washed up by any stretch. Even if he has lost a step, he's still faster than most. As recently as 2012, Johnson rolled off a 94-yard touchdown run—against the Jets, no less.

With that said, runs like that have been rare in recent years for one prevailing reason, and it isn't Johnson's age.

In that video, Johnson looks like the CJ2K of old—hit the hole with authority, turn on the jets once you hit the second level and buh-bye.

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However, lately that Johnson has given way to a back who spends far too much time dancing in the backfield, constantly trying to break runs outside and goes down at the first sniff of contact.

In that regard, a reduced workload would probably be a blessing. Given the presence of a physical between-the-tackles back in Chris Ivory and a capable third-down back in Bilal Powell (who combined to form the NFL's sixth-ranked run game in 2013), it would be silly for the Jets not to avail themselves of the depth in their new backfield.

Never mind that Johnson has averaged over 330 touches a season over his career. As Lynn said, "he's got some miles on him."

Taking some of the load off should, in theory, mean more bang for their buck when Johnson does get the ball.

Yes, it means no more 330-plus-touch seasons, but if Johnson can nudge his yards-per-carry average back into the 4.3 range, it would only take 233 carries to notch Johnson a seventh straight 1,000-yard season.

That's just under 15 carries a game, and it's not an unreasonable expectation for a Jets team that ran the ball over 30 times a contest in 2013.

The days of CJ2K may have been relegated to the past, but just because he can't recapture that glory doesn't mean that Chris Johnson can't enjoy considerable future success with his new team.

 

Gary Davenport is an NFL Analyst at Bleacher Report and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association and the Pro Football Writers of America. You can follow Gary on Twitter @IDPManor.

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