A Leap of FaithTuesday, July 24, 2012
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Remember last year?
Everyone had their own explanation for Chris Johnson's career-worst season. Early on, Titans coaches went so far as to openly blame themselves for not getting him enough carries.
Look closer, and there were early signs of internal concern. C.J. began losing series of playing time to Javon Ringer as early as Week 2. After that game, Mike Munchak and position coach Jim Skipper summoned Johnson for a private meeting. “They just wanted to really know how I was feeling and things like that and I let them know I was good,” Johnson explained at the time. Days later, Munchak said that Johnson "ran hard" in practice, "which was good to see." We'll cover this more in a bit, but Munchak said those things because Johnson wasn't running hard in the games.
Several football analysts suggested Johnson's struggles were due to poor offensive line play, and there is at least a sliver of truth to that. Tennessee's front five struggled to open holes, particularly on the interior. Football Outsiders graded the Titans as the worst run-blocking unit in the league. Pro Football Focus had them 17th, albeit with a severely "negative" grade.
It should be noted that FO graded the Titans' line 31st in run blocking in 2010, and PFF had them dead last. Yet Johnson's stats dipped across the board. His yards-per-carry average dropped from 4.32 two seasons ago to 3.99. In his prime, Johnson was an elusive runner on top of possessing go-the-distance speed. He really shouldn't need dominant run blocking.
In late October, a new theory arose. Titan Insider reported that Johnson's conditioning level was poor when he arrived at team headquarters in early September, following a training-camp holdout. Beat reporter Terry McCormick's story claimed that Johnson's physical fitness "could be a factor" as to his early-season struggles.
Texans linebacker Brian Cushing had a different take. "If you hit him early, I think it kind of deters him a little bit," said Johnson's division rival. NFL Films guru Greg Cosell suggested Johnson had morphed into a "back that shies away from contact," while missing lateral moves and explosion.
It was around that point that Johnson lashed out at his critics and, less directly, his teammates. "Basically, if you are watching the game and you really can’t tell what is going on with the run game, then I would say you really don’t know football," he said. "I wouldn’t say I am the issue."
A week later, Johnson was benched for Ringer in the fourth quarter of the Titans' Week 8 game against Indianapolis. "The Chris Johnson that we’re used to seeing, I don’t know why we’re not seeing him," NFL Network's Sterling Sharpe said after the Colts game. "Usually, when he got one on one, he could make a guy miss and it was going to be electric. Now he’s just curling up in a ball and looking for the softest spot on the field to lay down." Sharpe works for NFL Network's Playbook program, watching All-22 coaches tape. And the eye in the sky tends not to lie.
More theories for Johnson's struggles popped up over the course of the season. Some blamed the lockout. Others a new offensive coordinator. Johnson's conditioning was an oft-broached topic, as was the line play. In November, people around the league were wondering whether the Titans might cut Johnson after the season. He was playing that badly. Some folks legitimately believe Johnson has entered a state of decline.
"Is he a step slower? Yeah, I'm sure he is," said Munchak in January. "I don't know how you would measure that exactly, but I'm sure he has (lost speed)."
As someone who is interested in fantasy football, I find myself almost rooting for Johnson. He is an every-down back, and those don't grow on trees anymore. We also all saw Johnson take the NFL by storm in 2008 and 2009. He was so much fun to watch. I would love to see that again.
And I want to have a feel for whether it might happen.