It’s easy to get seduced by the big name in the NFL.
Recently-signed Arizona Cardinals running back Chris Johnson fits the bill. The man once known as “CJ2K” burst onto the NFL radar running a 4.24 40 time at the 2008 NFL Scouting Combine. He ended up being drafted by the Tennessee Titans with the 24th-overall pick in the first round of that year’s NFL Draft.
This wasn’t the case of a combine workout warrior — Johnson’s speed translated to real action with him running for 3,234 yards on 5.3 yards per carry over his first two seasons, including 2,009 yards in 2009. He scored 26 total touchdowns and had 31 runs over 20 yards, with ten of those going for 40-plus. During that span, over 20 percent of his runs went for first downs.
Johnson’s decline since those two ridiculous years has been slow and gradual. The question is, why? Is Johnson losing his physical ability as many running backs do as they enter their late 20s, early 30s, or are there other surrounding factors?
What Johnson has accomplished, or better yet, not accomplished, in 2013 and 2014, gives reason for concern for the Cards’ newest running back despite the optimism regarding the signing.
From Johnson’s 2013 season with the Titans:
Johnson averaged basically the same yards per carry as two extremely mediocre backs in Shonn Greene and Jackie Battle. “CJ2K” only had one more run over 20 yards on 166 more attempts, which is quite concerning for a back known for his breakaway ability.
In 2014 with the Jets, he perked back up slightly:
Johnson was better this past season, but still wasn’t able to significantly stick out over the other options. Watching the film showed it’s also pretty clear Chris Ivory was New York’s best running back.
Johnson told reporters after he was signed by Arizona, “My whole career, I’ve kind of been dealing with eight or nine in the box and not having a quarterback like Carson and not having receivers out there like that to stretch the field for me, so I just felt like this would be a good situation for me.”
This is par for the course with Johnson, blaming others for his struggles. In 2012 it was the Titans’ offensive line that was the issue, then it was the play calling, and finally with the Jets it wasn’t enough touches.
All of that being said, Johnson’s reasoning had a line of logic to it. His quarterbacks these past two seasons have been Geno Smith, Michael Vick, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Jake Locker. Unfortunately for Johnson, the tape doesn’t back up his claim.
These are statistics pulled from charting every single one of Johnson’s runs the past two seasons.
In 2013 with the Titans:
Johnson faced a nine-man front less than 1 percent of the time and an eight-man 30 percent. The front he saw the most was a seven-man, and he only averaged 3.92 yards per carry against that look.
In 2014 with the Jets it was even farther from the truth:
Johnson took on a seven or six-man front 76 percent of the time in New York. He only took on an eight or nine-man front about 24 percent of the time.
His drop in play has been mainly self inflicted — it’s not his offensive lines, not the play calling and not the QB he’s been stuck with.
That’s not what you’re looking for out of someone who is considered one of the best backs in the league. Johnson not only gets tackled in the open field, but he gets brought down by a secondary member essentially crawling on all fours.
This next play showed up a good amount in his 2013 tape:
Instead of following his blockers for a solid gain, Johnson runs himself into a tackle. Decisions like this are why Johnson averaged under four yards per carry for the first time in his career.
In 2014, Johnson did improve his first cut and that’s part of the reason his average yards-per-carry bounced back up, but more concerning was his lack of big play ability.
During both of these seasons, there were opportunities for huge chunk gains, yet he wasn’t able to make anything of the chances.
Johnson makes a solid first read and cut to get into the second level, but that’s where it falls apart. At that point, instead of trying to use his speed to accelerate to the outside, Johnson tries to cut back against the grain, giving up any shot at breakaway play.
Same type of decision from Johnson here except it comes earlier. He has a chance to create a chunk play by cutting outside, but instead cuts against the grain into the arms of a linebacker. This happened repeatedly (usually in the second level or past) over the course of the past two seasons — which could potentially mean a couple of things.
1. Johnson isn’t nearly as confident in his speed as he speaks of. Him losing the slightest step is a huge issue for him because he’s not a make-you-miss-with-jukes type runner. Johnson doesn’t have a shiftiness to him in the open field, he’s more about using his explosiveness to take away potential tackling angles. He’s much better at making someone running vertically miss versus a player squared up with him in a tackling position.
2. Maybe Johnson has an issue with his eye sight? Is he not seeing seeing the holes or open space because of a lack of peripheral vision? This is a thought I actually had because the examples of these last two plays happened way more than they should for a professional level running back.
The combination of Johnson’s personality and level of play doesn’t make him someone I believe the Cardinals need to have around. Sometimes experience doesn’t mean better, and in this case, I’d prefer Arizona to go forward with Andre Ellington, David Johnson and Kerwynn Williams.
General manager Steve Keim and head coach Bruce Arians have had success with similar one-year deals on veterans so maybe they have a magic potion that can reinvigorate Johnson’s career. Based on what I’ve seen from him in the recent past, makes it hard to believe Johnson can be anything more than at best average.