At the end of Week 3, we were confused about Chris Johnson’s slow start, and observed a short-list of mostly laughable players who had more rushing yards than CJ2K at the time.

At the time, we still thought we were witnessing an elongated mirage, if mirages can be elongated. At the time, we thought Johnson had surely hit the bottom of some solid, rock-like object with his 1.6 yards per carry in a Week 3 win over Denver. And at the time, we reached for simplistic explanations, like a locked out offseason, or a contract holdout that meant the first few weeks of the season were essentially Johnson’s personal training camp.

Now we’re heading into Week 9, and we’re still wondering what the hell is wrong with Chris Johnson.

We have a new group of insulting names to put ahead of Johnson’s 302 rushing yards too. Tim Hightower has missed two games and is done for the year, but he’s still 19 yards ahead of Johnson. Dolphins rookie Daniel Thomas has missed three games, and he’s tied with Johnson. Delone Carter plays for a terrible rushing team and has been buried in a three-headed monstrosity for much of the year, but he still has 305 yards. And Jackie Battle started his first game Monday night, yet he’s tied with Johnson too.

So Johnson has been pathetic, brutal, painful, awful, and any other word for bad that you’d like to toss in, and we’re no longer able to blame his performance on a lack of conditioning due to a unique offseason or a training camp absence. At the end of this week’s games we’ll officially be past the halfway point of the season, and the time for cheap excuses will be long over. Chris Johnson just simply hasn’t been Chris Johnson.

The Titans have started to drift towards a backfield platoon and Johnson has shared carries recently with Javon Ringer, who was leaned on heavily during their Week 8 win over the Colts while killing clock in the fourth quarter. Johnson just turned 26 last month, and is two years away from the age when we typically start to see a gradual decline in production for formerly elite running backs (see: Jackson, Steven).

There have been examples recently of running backs whose decline wasn’t gradual. It was sudden, unexpected, and abrupt. When you put Johnson’s numbers through nearly half a season alongside some recent RB cliff divers, we’re forced to begin asking the inevitable question we’re all avoiding.

How close is he to the end?

Player Year of decline Age Games played Rushing Yards Yards in previous year Y/G Y/C +20 runs Rushing TD
Chris Johnson  2011? 26 7 690* 1,364 43.1 2.8 6* 2*
Shaun Alexander  2006 28 10 896 1,880 55.1 3.6 2 7
Clinton Portis  2009 28 8 494 1,487 61.8 4.0 2 1
Larry Johnson  2007 28 8 559 1,789 69.9 3.5 5 3

*projected total based on current pace

You’ll point to age while looking at those numbers, and remind yourself that two years ago–the gap between Johnson and the others–is a long time in running back years. And when you do that I’ll move your finger to the column directly to the right of the one that indicates the players’ ages.

Despite being two years older than Johnson, and despite battling major injuries that took away half of their season for Portis and Larry Johnson and six games for Alexander, those three grizzled vets still easily bested Johnson in yards per game and yards per carry, the latter being the most important rushing metric.

Johnson is healthy, and yet he’s still averaging 42.2 yards per game less than he did in 2010, and 1.5 fewer yards per carry. And although he’s faced some tough run defenses (Pittsburgh, Baltimore), he hasn’t been consistently stymied by superior front sevens. Three of Tennessee’s seven opponents are ranked in the bottom half of the league against the run, and two (Indianapolis and Cleveland) are lower than 25th.

He’s still too talented and too explosive to nose dive this abruptly, which would be an especially tragic outcome for the Titans after he was signed to a new six-year deal on Sept. 1 worth $55.26 million, $30 million of which is guaranteed.

We’re quickly getting to the point, though, where he’s playing at a level below other recent running back nose-divers, and wondering about Johnson’s own dive is no longer an outlandish and absurd discussion.

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