Chris Johnson can be annoying. It’s annoying when he shuffles and scans in the backfield, blatantly missing an open running lane. It’s annoying when he slams into the hind regions of his offensive linemen, gaining something between little and nothing. And it’s annoying when he wastes his still game-busting speed.
But Chris Johnson can also give you — the viewer, the coach, or the general manager — a wide football smile. Even during a 2013 season when he averaged a career low 3.9 yards per carry, Johnson still sporadically found a way to go kaboom when given an opportunity in space, with two catches for 40 yards or more. That may sound meager and meh, but despite all the yardage he’s accumulated throughout his career and a 2009 season when he set the record for yards from scrimmage, two of Johnson’s five career +40 yard catches came in one year.
That’s an isolated example of his burst, and an intentional one. At this point in the career of a running back who turns 29 next September with 2,014 touches to his name, avoiding the annoying Johnson while harnessing the speedy Johnson is all about isolation. As a free agent he needed to land in a situation where the workload could be spread, and his legs would be kept fresh and optimized.
He needed to land with the New York Jets.
The glacial pace of general manager John Idzik meant it took a while but Chris Johnson is now a New York Jet. The contract details look like this:
Just catching up on Chris Johnson’s deal, saw PFT had some details. I’m told he gets $3M to sign, total of $8M over 2, with a $1M escalator.
— Albert Breer (@AlbertBreer) April 16, 2014
These are dark financial days for running backs. Johnson’s average yearly total of $4 million tops a depressed market. There were widespread reports that he sought something in the vicinity of $5 million annually, while Idzik wanted to stay in the neighborhood of $4 million per. Idzik didn’t budge from his price point, and the extra million available through incentives was the compromise.
It’s a commitment in line with what Johnson’s expected value. At just two years, the Jets will be free of him before the decline phase of his career becomes especially steep. If he sputters out of the gate, cutting him a year from now comes at no cost, as the $3 million in guaranteed money was already paid up front.
The Jets always made the most sense, even before Johnson’s Titans career ended. After adding Eric Decker and Jacoby Ford there was still a strong need for more weapons to support Geno Smith (or Michael Vick). Smith did plenty of wayward chucking on his own this past season, but please recall that for a significant chunk of the year — with Santonio Holmes out — his primary targets were Stephen Hill, Jeremy Kerley, and David Nelson. Gulp.
Between Decker and the addition of Johnson to run alongside Chris Ivory, the talent around Smith as gone from comical to something a defense should worry about. Johnson may still bob and weave, but he adds an explosive outside running dimension that was sorely lacking.
Given his paycheck, he’ll almost certainly be on the high side of a split with Ivory, but it’ll be a split nonetheless. The “fresh” factor is in play here, despite managed carries and the presence of Shonn Greene in Tennessee. Johnson topped the 300-carry mark twice in his six NFL seasons, and overall he averages 290.3 per year. He stayed healthy (missing only one game) and those heavy-usage days are behind him.
Less is more with Johnson. How much more remains to be seen, but if he’s spry enough to connect on a few more of his home run cuts, this is money well invested for a short-term gain with minimal risk. A welcome change for the wholly average Jets, authors of just two runs from scrimmage longer than 40 yards over the past three years.
With Ivory as the lead runner for much of the season, their 2013 rush attack averaged 134.9 yards per game, good for sixth in the league. He’s no snail himself, but now Ivory can do the inside bruising while Johnson is utilized in space. That’s a mighty fine setup for a running back who’s only a year removed from five games over 120 yards, including three 80+ yard runs.
Dare I say it, but if Smith can even become average or if Vick wins the job, barring injury the Jets could actually be threatening offensively, especially if Johnson does his best LaDainian Tomlinson impression.
Now, about that defense. A cornerback or three would be nice.