Before we get started we can chalk this one up to one of those things I don’t understand. Chris Johnson, arguably the league’s most complete back, is struggling. In four of the Titans last five games, he’s run for less than 25 yards— or about one length of the pool.
The common refrain is that Johnson just isn’t good anymore. I know as a writer, and former athlete I’m expected to pile on and to appease those who have come to such a hasty conclusion, but I can’t. Not yet, anyway.
This would be the plausible argument if we were talking about 37 year-old guy with rickety knees and slowed reactions. But since we’re discussing a 27 year-old guy who’s in the meaty part of his virility and who still possesses vision, burst, and flawless cut back ability, I’m gonna have to call bull crap on that one.
Johnson signed a $53 million contract extension last year, so common wisdom would lead us to believe that Johnson isn’t as productive because he isn’t “hungry.” Normally, I quickly dismiss hypotheses that attribute any failing to a lack of motivation. Convenience is the worst thing for a healthy argument.
Besides, one should always apply the appropriate property to the events following a contract year. The person who got paid, got paid because he was mostly unstoppable, or unguardable, or unblockable.
It stands to reason that the following year, the teams that play against him—the ones who have spent the entire winter hunkered down in grease board-filled meeting rooms thinking of ways to stop him, guard him, or block him—will enjoy a modicum of success, especially when an entire unit is devoted to the task.
This seems to be the case with Johnson, especially in week one against the Patriots. New England executed a two-gap scheme. The defensive tackles, one of whom— Vince Wilfork, is the size of a small Baptist church, were responsible for securing not just one, but two gaps. When done properly, this technique makes for a big, collapsible net, the likes of which one would use to trap tuna. All forward movement is forced laterally. Johnson was forced to bounce all of his runs outside, only to find unblocked linebackers lying in wait.
This has been the case for Johnson the last several weeks. This makes disgrntled fantasy football owners, who are invested in the game the way housewives were once invested in soap operas, wonder if Johnson isn’t truly giving it his all.
For most of this season, the high- flying Johnson has been earthbound.
But I can’t dismiss that supposition, not anymore. There is some precedent to this theory. Last year, fantasy enthusiasts, pundits, and Eagles fans alike questioned the sincerity of Desean Jackson’s labor. He was in the final year of his contract, and as a proven receiver/returner/game changer, he was due a raise.
But after last October, when he was famously concussed by Falcons cornerback Dunta Robinson, Jackson’s demeanor was significantly altered. The electricity that accompanied his presence had gone. If he was afraid, or if he had lost his nerve— especially when asked to run a slant—it was understandable, if not forgivable.
Gone was the guy whose improbable punt return in the final seconds of the game crushed the Giants in 2010. Still, it was one thing for us to assume that Jackson was going through the motions, but something altogether different, not to mention altogether disturbing, to have those suspicions confirmed.
When asked about it, Jackson confessed. “I let it get to me, even though I tried not to let it,” he said. “I was trying to protect myself from getting hurt -- now I'm just giving it all.” Last March, after he signed a five-year, $51 million extension with $15 million guaranteed, Jackson expressed no remorse. He felt with what he had done for the team, he “deserved it.”
Several months later, I’m still dismayed by Jackson’s admission. Perhaps I’m shocked because I just can’t relate to it. I had never seen it, or even given it credence. I just never thought a player could fathom, let alone get away with, giving anything less than full effort.
A job in sport doesn’t allow for pretense. It’s not like you’re some bloated executive who can go into an office, shut the door and pretend to be busy. In sport, in order to perform, to be credible, and even to avoid injury, one must be fully present.
With Chris Johnson, it’s the impossible standard that accompanies payment. Right now we’re being treated to the Alex Rodriguez annual fall festival of failed expectations. Since 2000, when his agent, Scott Boras, held Tom Hicks, the Texas Rangers owner at gunpoint and forced him to pay Rodriguez $25 million a year, Rodriguez has embodied unrealistic belief.
Rodriguez is expected to come through in the clutch, every time. He usually doesn’t. But when he does, like in the 2009 Series, for which Rodriguez should have been the Series M.V.P., his triumphs are quickly forgotten. As his struggle continues today, which explanation gets more traction? That Rodriguez just isn’t trying hard enough to hit the ball? Or that he’s overpaid?
I suppose this discussion will have to resume tomorrow morning because tonight Chris Johnson takes on a Steeler’s defense that isn’t what it was, but one that still offers a variety of schematic hazards.
Johnson has offered one argument in his defense. And it’s not one that will garner much understanding from fans or teammates, though it is quite accurate. Says Johnson, “I’m only as good as my offensive line.”
From a distance it’s easy to project things onto other people. Maybe that’s what this is about. During practice at my last Redskins training camp, the quarterback badly overthrew the receiver, a guy named Leslie Shepherd. It was vastly overthrown, like forty feet.
As the ball hit the turf with a thud, I saw a guy in the stands throw up his hands in anger. “Dive for the ball!” he shouted. Even if he had, Shepherd had no chance. The Flash himself would have to call upon his super hero reserves to give himself a chance to catch this particular ball.
But maybe that guy in the stands just needed to satisfy the belief that, if given the chance to play, he would dive for every ball, regardless of circumstance or possibility. So everyone else should, too.
It’s about appearances, I guess.
Follow Alan Grant on twitter@ AlanGrant_NFL