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Chris Johnson Was An Awesome Running Back Once Upon A Time. Now He Sucks.

I’d like to think that football players play hard, that they try, and often when things aren’t going well, it’s attributable to a variety of factors that can’t be summarized in simple sound bytes. I’d like to believe that star players who can be among the best at their position have a certain amount of arrogance and pride, that goes beyond whether they just got millions, to prove themselves.

Chris Johnson has been horrible. A few weeks ago, I took a look at other star backs who had slow starts, and they almost universally rebounded for the rest of the year. I limited it to star backs (Johnson did have the third most yards at ages 24 and 25 in NFL history), and thus excluded a lot of replacement level scrubs who did not recover because they simply were not very good. Chris Johnson is running like a replacement level back at this point.

I remember when Johnson came into the league, we knew he was fast, but guys like Michael Bennett were fast, but not good runners. Then I started reading glowing reports coming out of camps, and I already had the guy on the radar. In watching the preseason games, he was a guy I had to have on any fantasy teams, even though the consensus was that he was in a time share. He had “it”, vision, speed, agility, and even toughness that belied his size.

I don’t know what has happened to that guy, but right now, he is a shell of that guy I was enamored with in July of 2008. Tom Gower of Football Outsiders and Total Titans, who is a Titan fan and thus suffers through watching more of Johnson’s carries, went through his game against Houston, largely concluding that it was mostly Chris Johnson who was responsible for his poor performance, failing to take yards that were there, not trying to challenge edge defenders with his speed, and not making proper reads.

As to what this means for next Sunday, I really don’t know. To my eye, what Chris Johnson was doing would prevent him from running for good yardage against virtually any NFL defense, behind virtually any NFL offensive line. It is possible that Chris Johnson just had an exceptionally bad game, and that he will run the ball much better Sunday against the Colts. Personally, I am not optimistic about Chris Johnson’s future performance, be it against the Colts, the rest of this season, or the remainder of his NFL career.

Then he went out against a Colts’ defense and looked horrible again. The tape doesn’t lie, and neither do the actions of the coaching staff in giving Javon Ringer, who I think is the definition of a replacement level starting back, as many carries as Johnson on Sunday.

There are three possibilities for Chris Johnson, and none of them are particularly appealing. When I look at top backs at the same age as Johnson, it’s pretty rare to have a dramatic fall-off without an injury that causes the player to miss games. The only two similar drops without an injury among backs with over 3,200 yards from scrimmage at age 24-25 were Ricky Williams in 2003 and Earl Campbell in 1981. Those were two big bruising backs that took a lot of carries over a period of years, and the dropoff wasn’t even what we have seen from Johnson through 7 games.

So, one possibility is that Johnson is carrying an injury but hiding it, something that is not obvious but is affecting his willingness to make certain cuts or try to beat defenders with speed, rather than just giving up by diving ahead when contact is near. This would, I guess, be the most appealling explanation if it is an injury that could heal over time.

The second one is that he has the equivalent of the yips, because he is not running like he used to, and is not trusting himself to make the runs. The final one? Well, he got paid. I’d like to believe that any player that got to this point has a little more pride, and will respond when a backup outperforms them. We’ll see. I’d like to see that Chris Johnson that I watched in 2008 and 2009 again. I’d also like to see lots of things that may never happen again.

[photo via Getty]

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