There were screams in the distance during the first Sunday of the NFL season. They came in many forms, but one was louder than all the others.
There was a distinct and defining intonation to these voices. They were not the product of fright, as the source hadn’t just been confronted by the world’s largest beardog, and a fear of the unknown after discovering a new, strange breed of monkey didn’t prompt instinctive primal screeches either. For some reason, though, those two events involving exotic creatures seem highly plausible on an NFL Sunday.
The screams were instead the result of bitter, crushing depression and anguish. The screams came from Chris Johnson owners who watched their running back get only four rushing yards on 11 carries.
It’s a troubling time to own the former stud who set the record for the most yards from scrimmage in 2009, a year that included 2,006 rushing yards. Since we’re in the business of reacting and overreacting to short-term results and attempting to project them over the long-term course of an entire season, fantasy owners are already wondering if there’s hope for Johnson. Those who question the need to take bounding leaps off of high objects in the name of Johnson need to remember that Week 1 wasn’t just your casual off week from your top running back, and Johnson is more than just your casual running back.
He was a first-round pick in most leagues, and an early second-rounder at worst. In ESPN leagues his average draft position was 7th overall, and in NFL.com leagues he settled at 11th. It’s fair to say that everyone who owns Johnson drafted him as their No. 1 running back, and anything close to a repeat of his 2011 season will be crippling.
Although through the sheer volume of his carries Johnson managed to eclipse 1,000 rushing yards last year (barely, finishing at 1,047), he was a drastically different runner from that other guy we saw in 2009. His yards per carry were down to 4.0 after peaking at 5.6 during that record-setting season, and his yards per game went from 125.4 to 65.4. Dating back to the beginning of last year, Johnson has failed to eclipse the 60-yard mark in 11 of his past 17 games.
This year we expect to see a resurgence, since Johnson had the convenient and easy excuse of a contract holdout last summer combined with the lockout. And maybe we’ll see that, and maybe Johnson will return to being a league average runner sometime.
Maybe. But through one week, hope has been dealt a serious gut punch.
There’s the instinct to blame a poor offensive line. And sure, there’s some validity to that, but more often Johnson’s indecisiveness is the root of his problems and that only serves to exaggerate the weaknesses of his blockers, an observation that NFL.com’s Gregg Rosenthal made when he watched the tape of Tennessee’s Week 1 loss to New England.
Sometimes he had no chance. Other times he danced around looking for the big play instead of taking a 5-yard gain. This is just what Johnson does; it’s not a new thing. The difference is, lately, he’s just not finding any of those big plays.
“I think he is lacking confidence in his offensive line, and I don’t think he’s trusting his eyes,” SiriusXM NFL Radio’s Ross Tucker told the Tennessean. “I don’t think the Titans offensive line played great, but let’s put it this way: running backs have had yardage with offensive linemen playing worse.”
Looking forward, the Titans’ upcoming schedule doesn’t favor Johnson’s claw back to respectability.
He’s already faced a New England run defense that’s been upgraded through the addition of Dont’a Hightower. This week he’ll run against a San Diego rush defense that held Darren McFadden to just 32 yards in Week 1. The Lions are then the exception and possibly/hopefully a springboard opponent in Week 3 after they allowed 128.1 yards per game last year, but then the next three opponents on deck (Texans, Vikings, Steelers) allowed a combined 100.9 weekly rushing yards in 2011.
That doesn’t favor a break out, or even or a sustained return to being average. Instead, it favors more mediocrity.