Chris Johnson is many things, and few of those things are good right now. Set to turn 29 a few weeks into the 2014 season, he’s an old man by the standards of his position, a decline made even more real by his 2,014 career touches. He’s also a shell of his former self, with less explosive downfield shaking and/or baking, and much more backfield dancing that ends badly. He had only 1,077 rushing yards this past season, which is a drop of 287 yards from his total just a few years back in 2010, and he arrived there at a career low pace of 3.9 yards per carry.
Those numbers are bad news for a running back, and with Johnson that’s especially true when we toss in another awful digit: $8 million, his scheduled paycheck in 2014. It’s a hefty sum, and one set to make him the highest paid running back in the league not named Adrian Peterson next season if he stays with the Tennessee Titans.
Which is why he’s not staying with the Tennessee Titans.
Whether it’s through a trade for the proverbial sack of battered footballs or his release (much, much more likely the latter because no one will pay him that $8 million), Johnson will be a former Titans employee in a matter of days. Or hours, and the Titans have no intention of letting him participate when their offseason program begins Monday. Yesterday Johnson’s agent Joe Segal appeared on NFL Radio and stated the obvious, saying his client will be playing elsewhere in the very near future.
If you’re the positive vibes type, it’s easy and quite sensible to arrive at a possibility for Johnson. Can he pull off a LaDainian Tomlinson?
Tomlinson was in a nearly identical situation towards the end of his career as his time in San Diego came to a close. Actually, his plight was worse. Much worse.
His final season as a Charger was also Tomlinson’s ninth NFL year, nearly a decade in which he had rushed for over 1,400 yards five times. That came at an abusive price though: 3,071 career touches by the end of his age 30 season. Yet much like Johnson (who’s missed only one career game), Tomlinson absorbed that high volume abuse and kept chugging, missing just three games when he was with the Chargers.
That pounding year-after-year inevitably led to declining numbers. Tomlinson averaged 1387.8 rushing yards per season with the Chargers and that included 1,815 in 2006, the same year he set the single-season record for rushing touchdowns with 28. But during his final season before becoming a free agent and eventually signing with the New York Jets his numbers followed a familiar path of decay, with his rushing yardage falling to 730, easily a career low.
It was assumed in New York he would be a mere veteran presence behind Shonn Greene. He would get a handful of managed touches per game, dive ahead for whatever he had left, and have a few final victory laps as the Chargers moved on. But when that more managed workload came, so did a far more fresh and spry Tomlinson. On a career low 219 carries (Greene wasn’t far behind at 185) Tomlinson rushed for 914 yards. That’s nearly 200 more yards than the previous season on a lesser workload, and it gets better when we add in his production as a receiving option out of the backfield. Tomlinson had 1,282 total yards during his age 31 season, a year after finishing with just 884.
With Johnson it’s easy to think rosy thoughts and imagine a rejuvenation that parallels Tomlinson’s. Like the future hall of famer, Johnson is a fast and elusive open-field runner who doubles as a consistent pass catching option, and when speed is kept fresh with a reduced workload there’s a better opportunity for a good return on your investment. Although his fall in production has been a little longer than Tomlinson’s at the end of his San Diego run, Johnson still has six straight seasons with over 1,000 rushing yards. He’s also a little younger than Tomlinson with far less milage on those weary leg tires at this point in their respective careers.
Johnson is fading before our very eyes, no doubt, and a running back market that looks a lot like the punter market won’t help his cause. But in the right situation fresh and fast legs will always be welcome.
So, he’s signing with the Jets then, right?