TEMPE, Ariz. — Maybe what Chris Johnson has done in his first three games as an Arizona Cardinal should not be all that surprising.
After all, he would just be another in a growing list of veterans picked up during training camp who went on to make an impact for the team.
Like John Abraham and Tommy Kelly before him, Johnson was once a key player on a good team, someone who either due to injury or a down season or advanced age — or a combination of the three — was, in NFL terms, left for dead.
So when the Cardinals signed him in mid-August the move made news, yes, but did not exactly move the meter much.
Yet after three games — one of which he entered as the second-string running back — the 30-year-old former Tennessee Titan and New York Jet ranks seventh in the NFL in rushing yards, with 219. He also has an average of 4.2 yards per carry and has scored twice.
“I really don’t know, whether it was the health of his shoulder, the shot or perception that he was finished,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said when asked why he thinks Johnson was a free agent for so long. “I don’t know why other teams didn’t look at him. I’m just glad that we did.”
Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald said he’s not sure Johnson was even on the Cardinals’ radar until both Andre Ellington and David Johnson suffered hamstring injuries, leaving the team very thin at the running back position during camp.
“Stepfan was out there all by himself it seemed like for about a week, so we needed some depth at the position,” he said. “Chris was coming off an offseason of rehabilitation and he just fell into our lap. We’re all so happy to have him.
“He’s a veteran guy, he hits it up in there, he can make explosive plays out of the backfield when he gets his hands on it. So we’re just really pleased to have him and he’s a great teammate.”
Johnson’s emergence, or re-emergence depending on how you look at it, has come at a good time for the Cardinals. Starting running back Andre Ellington has been sidelined since he sprained his PCL in the team’s Week 1 win over the New Orleans Saints, and while the third-year pro is nearing a return, Arians has said Johnson will still get plenty of action as part of the team’s offensive attack.
How exactly the touches will be divvied up, Arians said, will be determined by game plan as well as game feel.
“If a guy gets the hot hand you ride him until he taps out,” he said. “That’s always been the case. You also want to have fresh legs in the fourth quarter. That is something I learned back with Coach (Bear) Bryant. If you have a guy fresh then he will be better than guys that have been beating each other up all day.”
Johnson, of course, is not unlike most running backs in that he prefers to continually get carries throughout the game, allowing him to find a rhythm while simultaneously wearing the defense down.
That’s not to say he does not get tired and need a break.
Given how much of the offseason he missed, Johnson admits he is still working his way back into football shape.
“I’m almost there, I’m getting there,” he said. “I don’t think I’m all the way there yet, but I’m getting there.”
Johnson said he runs gassers after practice during the week to try and help him get into shape quicker, but understands that he can’t truly be where he wants to be until he plays enough football. He will get there, though, and when he does, it’s possible the Cardinals will have a player who runs more like the guy who ran for 6,888 yards and 44 touchdowns with an average of 4.7 yards per carry from 2008 to 2012 than the one who amassed just 1,740 yards, seven touchdowns and a 4.0 yards per carry average in 2013 and 2014.
Should Johnson be the player he once was, or something close, Arians would not be surprised.
“I have played against him for years,” the coach said. “It was just a matter of getting him back to football shape.”
As for the thing that did surprise Arians — Johnson being available in the first place — well, that’s something Johnson feels like he has an understanding of, too.
“It was a lot of stuff going on with me,” he said. “A lot of teams had a lot of character issues, thought I had a lot of character issues and then just a lot of stuff going on around me as far as the shooting and stuff like that.
“I’m pretty sure it scared a lot of teams off and just now when I look back at it, I think everything happened for a reason and it helped me land here.”