In a few days the best running backs in the 2014 draft class will be on the field in Indianapolis. After teams ask them questions about everything from their breakfast habits to their favorite Ninja Turtle, they’ll participate in all the usual Combine underwear fun: running 40 yards in a straight line, jumping straight in the air, jumping horizontally in the air, running around three cones, etc.
Then they’ll go off to train some more and repeat the same process at their respective Pro Day workouts for many more men with clipboards and stopwatches. Then after all the bench reps, and the talk of rising and falling stocks due to speeding tickets and other unrelated matters, not a single one of them will be drafted in the first round.
That’s the likely and rightful ending of the draft process this year for each and every running back, with few given a first-round grade in early mocks, and often the entire class is projected to wait until the second round and beyond. If that indeed happens, it’ll be the second straight year a running back isn’t selected until Day 2, and Trent Richardson is now the dark example of failure at No. 3 overall in 2012.
But long-term, there may be an even better example of first-round running back failure. Or maybe this particular example is just lazy and a waste of the talent given to him by the almighty powers above.
His name is Chris Johnson, and he will soon be a former Tennessee Titans employee.
Just don’t tell the Titans that yet, because it’s a secret. Given his lack of production that I’ll dive into in a moment combined with the bloated paycheck he’s due over each of the next two seasons ($8 million next year, and the same again in 2016), a departure before March 11 has felt like a mere formality for a long time.
And it is, but today at the Combine Titans officials did a fine job of dancing and saying nothing while saying something. First up was general manager Ruston Webster, who said sweet time will be taken with a decision. Then all new head coach Ken Whisenhunt could do was praise how well Johnson…practices.
“I can’t speak about what he has left in the tank, you never know about that, I know I see a player who is there every Sunday. He’s had a lot of success in the league, he has been to Pro Bowls, and you have a lot of respect for that. He practiced every day, from what I’ve seen of the records last year, and he played in a lot of games. He’s been a good football player.”
This is the time when side stepping happens, because the Titans have little need to say anything publicly right now or even hint at their inevitable direction. But about those numbers.
Johnson has now played six seasons, and here are his averages over the first three…
- 1,532 rushing yards
- 95.8 rushing yards per game
- 336 receiving yards
- 12 touchdowns
That stretch of course includes Johnson’s 2,006 yard rushing season in 2009. Throw in his receiving yards that year (503), and Johnson established a new single-season record with 2,509 total yards from scrimmage.
The Johnson we saw over that period is a faded, backfield juking memory now. Instead, this is the Johnson we’ve come to know and loathe since 2011…
- 1,122 rushing yards
- 70.1 rushing yards per game
- 331.6 receiving yards
- 10 touchdowns
While the receiving and scoring numbers have remained steady, those are some pretty average averages on the ground during a three-year period. This past season the disappointment thickened after the Titans invested heavily in their offensive line in the form of Andy Levitre and first-round pick Chance Warmack. Then Johnson posted a career low 3.9 yards per carry which was the result of seven games when he failed to rush for even 50 yards.
The splits above show that the new meandering version of Johnson who’s woefully indecisive in the backfield is over 400 rushing yards per season behind the old blazing Johnson, and 25 per game. Yet while he may have lost a step or two as the body does over time, he’s still fully capable of being explosive whenever he desires. Amongst his rubble of awful in 2013, Johnson still posted a 150-yard game in Week 9, which somehow came after four games when his rushing total was 110 yards. He also broke free for two plays of 45 yards or more.
As Terrell Davis recently wondered, Maybe desire is the problem, and that could be a very real thing. Or maybe there’s an even deeper problem: an inability to identify a running lane.
A while back our game film fiend Alen Dumonjic tried to find the root of Johnson’s problems, and he saw this…
Two choices are there: a gaping cutback alley that would likely end in a touchdown with Johnson’s speed, or a smaller but still very much there hole to the right which would produce a decent gain. Instead he ran straight ahead and bounced off the hind regions of his linemen. Eventually after staying upright he pinballed to the outside for a positive gain, but the play could have been so much more had he both identified and read his blockers properly, and cut back.
The sequence is from 2012, but little has changed. That’s why Shonn Greene was signed a year ago to both provide a change-of-pace back and to lighten Johnson’s workload, which ended in CJ?K telling the Titans to either use him as a hulking workhorse, or let him walk.
He’ll likely get his wish for the latter, but his demand will be sluggish. He’ll turn 29 shortly after the 2014 season starts next fall, which is nearly the rocking chair/Matlock watching age for running backs. At this point his body has absorbed the abuse of 2,014 touches, and he played much of this season with a torn meniscus.
A year ago a then 27-year-old Reggie Bush was one of free agency’s most hotly pursued commodities, despite the numerous injuries he had endured. He received a four-year contract from the Lions worth $16 million, only $4 million of which was guaranteed. That may be a good starting point for Johnson’s open-market value, and it’s likely his value will fall even a bit (or a lot) further below Bush because of his far greater usage and pummeling. At minimum then if we assume he’s released because logic should prevail in Tennessee, Johnson’s paycheck in 2014 will be cut in half.
This is the plight of the running back, or at least those who don’t occupy the very top tier. And even when you’re among the elites as Johnson once was, the fall physically and financially can be swift.