A Leap of FaithTuesday, July 24, 2012
I already wrote up two of Johnson's 2011 games for previous Re-Watching pieces. Links to those less comprehensive reviews can be found here and here. To form a stronger opinion, I picked five more: Week 9 versus Cincinnati (18 touches), Week 12 versus Tampa Bay (24 touches), Week 13 at Buffalo (24 touches), Week 15 at Indianapolis (23 touches), and Week 17 at Houston (19).
Keep in mind that three of the five games could be described as favorable matchups. Tampa Bay finished dead last in the NFL in run defense. Buffalo was 28th, and Indy 29th. Cincy and Houston had top-ten run defenses. The Bucs and Bills games were Johnson's best box scores of the year.
On the O-Line Woes
I charted 90 carries in the five games. Defenses got backfield penetration on 36 occasions, a high total (40 percent) and confirmation that Tennessee's offensive line didn't execute enough as a run-blocking unit. The old Chris Johnson excelled at making the initial defender miss, though, and turning negative runs into long ones. 2011 Johnson rarely made the first man miss. And I don't think it was because he couldn't anymore. I think it was because he didn't care to.
Pathetic Pass Blocking
One concern rarely broached is Johnson's pass blocking. He doesn't need to be a sensational blocker if he's posing a dynamic running and receiving threat, but Johnson's blitz-pickup efficacy can affect his playing time. And it also provides a solid clue as to whether his heart was in it on a down-to-down basis. I found Johnson's pass blocking to be thoroughly pathetic in the five games.
Charting 31 opportunities, I credited Johnson with a measly six effective pass blocks. 13 times, Johnson appeared to take a pass-blocking stance but did not make contact with an oncoming defender. This occurred either because he had no interest in blocking, or a defender did not race directly at him. I charted Johnson with 12 unsuccessful pass blocks, meaning he did identify a blitzer but did not block him. Johnson's poor blocking contributed to three sacks in the five games.
The Titans knew Johnson was blocking poorly and consistently pulled him for Javon Ringer on passing downs. Ringer is barely a replacement-level talent as a ball carrier and receiver. I'm not sure he's going to last much longer in the league. But Ringer is a far better pass blocker than Johnson. OC Chris Palmer has extensive background in the run-and-shoot, and increasingly used four- and five-wide sets down the stretch last season. Tennessee is going to throw the ball an awful lot more in 2012, and it will need its tailback to be able to block. Or at least to be willing.
Running out of Bounds
I harkened back to Cosell's in-season comments calling Johnson an "avoid-contact runner" when viewing him run out of bounds in the five games, rather than turn upfield for additional yards. The tendency was especially evident in the Bengals and Bucs games. Johnson didn't want to get hit, so he'd use the sideline as a safe haven on plays to the perimeter. This goes hand in hand with the undeniable fact that Johnson refused to finish runs in 2011. It was a problem all year long.
What made Johnson so special during his first three NFL seasons was his ability to combine electrifying long speed and cuts with instinctive, fearless inside running and physicality at the end of runs. Johnson is 5-foot-11 and about 200 pounds. Coming out of East Carolina, many teams graded him as a future change-of-pace back. The long speed was great, but he took the league by storm because he was so good between the tackles, created space for himself regularly, and packed legitimate pop. He suddenly morphed into the league's least physical back in 2011.
Will Johnson Turn it Around?
Like Randy Moss after he was traded out of Oakland, and even Michael Vick when he got out of prison, Johnson has plenty of juice left in his tank. His 2011 problems had to do with effort. I can say this with supreme confidence after witnessing nearly all of his games between last year's in-season observations and subsequent offseason reviews. There certainly were flashes of it against the Bills and Bucs. Johnson still cuts on a dime and can outrace defensive backs when he feels up for it. Whether he turns his career back around and has a rebound season is entirely up to him.
Johnson's improved offseason commitment level has been widely billed as a promising sign -- an indication that he wants "it" again. Perhaps that is the case, or perhaps he'll revert to his on-field shell after the first big hit. As far as predictive analysis goes, spring puff pieces are hit or miss. Johnson was the subject of many.
The fact that Johnson quit last season -- in my opinion -- makes him a fantasy player I will likely look to avoid in 2012. You're just not going to find many running backs who can match his potential workload and god-given talent. Undoubtedly, it's an enticing combination.
But I think that, because Johnson showed the frightening capacity to flip his own off-switch, drafting him for your fantasy football team this year requires a leap of faith.