Thus far in the 2011 season, Chris Johnson of the Tennessee Titans is having one of the worst years of any running back. Even though he's getting the vast majority of the Titans' running back carries, he's averaging fewer than 45 yards a game because he's averaging fewer than 3.0 yards per carry. Johnson is currently on pace for 715 yards on 248 carries, and would be the first back with 200 carries and fewer than 3.0 yards a rush since Eddie George did it for the Titans back in 2001.
The question on the mind of Titans fans and every fantasy owner of his is, can Johnson rebound? My answer, based on an in-depth review of his play Sunday, is that the answer is a relatively clear "No." Based on his play Sunday, Johnson is currently running like a back who will find it very difficult to have success at the NFL level.
Some of the apparent anger and surprise over the low level of Johnson's performance comes from a belief that this sort of downfall is unprecedented. Unfortunately, it is not, and you don't have to stray very far from Chris Johnson's name in the Pro Football Encyclopedia to find the back his career arc most closely resembles. That player was Larry Johnson.
Consider these parallels:
In 2009, Chris Johnson took over as the Titans' feature back midway through the season. He then rattled off a remarkable stretch of rushing productivity. Over the last ten games of the season, he averaged 26 carries a game for 141 yards, at 5.4 yards per carry.
In 2005, Larry Johnson took over as the Chiefs' feature back midway through the season. He then rattled off a remarkable stretch of rushing productivity. Over the last nine games of the season, he averaged 29 carries a game for 150 yards, at 5.2 yards per carry.
In 2010, Chris Johnson as well had a good but slightly disappointing season. He led the Titans in rushing and still had a good number of carries and yards, but his per-carry average fell to 4.3 and his average run was less successful.
In 2006, Larry Johnson had a good but slightly disappointing season. He led the Chiefs in rushing and still had a good number of carries and yards, but his per-carry average fell to 4.3 and his average run was less successful.
In 2011, Chris Johnson held out of training camp. In late August, the Titans agreed to end his holdout by giving him a big money six-year deal. He is now struggling through a miserable season, with only 93 carries for 268 yards, a 2.9 yards per carry average, and only one rushing touchdown in six games.
In 2007, Larry Johnson held out of training camp. In late August, the Chiefs agreed to end his holdout by giving him a big money six-year deal. He then struggled through a miserable season, where he had only 158 carries for 559 yards, a 3.5 yards per carry average, and three rushing touchdowns in the Chiefs' first eight games.
Larry Johnson then went on injured reserve with a foot injury suffered in the Chiefs' eighth game. Since then, he has never managed to regain the form he showed in 2005 or even 2006. He managed to rebound somewhat in 2008, with 193 carries for 874 yards and five rushing touchdowns, but more advanced statistical measures suggest that even then he was one of the league's most ineffective running backs. The Chiefs eventually cut him mid-season in 2009, when he was averaging less than 3.0 yards per carry and decided his coach's lack of NFL experience was to blame for his struggles.
Unless he suddenly resumes running the way he did two years ago, Chris Johnson may be hard-pressed to even find Larry's late-career success. Larry, after all, was a much bigger back, listed at 235 pounds who could bull his way forward for a couple yards with moderate success, as he did for the Bengals in 2009 after being cut by the Chiefs. Chris, by contrast, is officially only 191 pounds and has never demonstrated the ability to be a power runner.
With their big financial commitment to Chris Johnson, the Titans are unlikely to formally bench him or make him part of a running back by committee scenario with Javon Ringer and Jamie Harper, as his level of production might suggest. For a back who has any speed at all, it's difficult to see him sustaining the sub-3.0 yards per carry average, just because the blocking is likely to be good enough he'll get the occasional 20 or 40 yard gain. But don't be surprised to see more statlines from Chris Johnson like 21 carries for 67 yards going forward.