TEMPE, Ariz. — Chris Johnson was one of the best stories of the 2015 NFL season, a player who had gone from a late-training camp pickup to the starting running back for one of the league’s best teams.
Then, suddenly, he wasn’t.
Johnson suffered a fractured tibia during Arizona’s 19-13 win over the San Francisco 49ers in Week 12, and within days was placed on the Injured Reserve/Designated to Return list.
The 30-year-old spoke to reporters for the first time since the injury Tuesday and said at the time the it happened, he did not think it was all that severe.
“When I first walked off the field and when they took the X-Ray we didn’t see anything I guess because where I was feeling the pain at, it was lower than where the actual crack was at,” he said. “When we actually flew back and I had gotten back, it had swelled up a bit and I couldn’t even walk on it or whatever.
“But ever since then it’s just been rehabbing and just getting back healthy.”
Though the injury is season-threatening, it’s not officially season-ending. Johnson is eligible to practice six weeks from when the injury occurred, and could appear in a game two weeks after that. That means, as long as his leg continues to improve, Johnson could get back on the practice field the second week of the postseason, and then be activated for Super Bowl 50.
Johnson said he felt good about his prognosis when the MRI revealed no structural or ligament damage, and Tuesday had just come from running in the pool when he stopped to chat. He did not sport a noticeable limp while walking around, and said his leg “feels really good.”
At the time of the injury, Johnson ranked fourth in the NFL in rushing yards. He had struggled some during the weeks leading up to that point, running for 247 yards on 85 carries in wins over the Cleveland Browns, Seattle Seahawks, Cincinnati Bengals and 49ers, the game in which he got hurt. But even with that slump and missing the last two weeks, his total of 814 ranks 10th in the league.
Since Johnson went out, rookie David Johnson has picked up the slack at running back, tallying 191 rushing yards and another 52 receiving yards with one touchdown in Arizona wins over the St. Louis Rams and Minnesota Vikings.
Until he’s able to return — if he’s able to return — Chris Johnson said all he can do is get healthy and be a cheerleader. After all, the only way he gets to play again this season is if his teammates do well without him.
However, Johnson admitted it did not necessarily have to be this way. He’s confident the decision to put him on Injured Reserve had more to do with opening up a roster spot than his own health. Not that he’s upset about it, mind you. Just that he’s pretty sure with the way things are going he’ll be able to run outside at some point in the next couple of weeks.
“I’m not sure, they probably didn’t think I’d be feeling as good as quick as I am, but you know, the main thing is the scenario that they went through last year losing so many people and so many people getting hurt,” Johnson said, “they were probably thinking the roster spot is so important to hold for so long and not knowing how quick I’d be able to get back.”
That may be true, at least in part. Even in the best-case scenario, Johnson still would have missed a significant amount of time, and keeping him on the roster would have left the team a little thin while it waited for him to return to the field.
Johnson said when the team approached him about the idea he was not quite sure about what going on I.R. would mean, that he was thinking he would be able to come back in time for the playoffs.
“But there’s nothing I can do about it right now,” he said. “I understand it’s not about me, it’s about the team, and hopefully we can get to that game.”
The entire situation is a tough break for Johnson, who did not arrive with much fanfare but quickly showed he still had plenty left in the tank and could be a valuable player for a team with Super Bowl aspirations. The former Tennessee Titan and New York Jet often spoke of how happy he was in Arizona with all the talent around him and the likelihood that he would get to the playoffs for the first time since 2008, his rookie season. Now, all he can do is watch as his teammates look to pick up where he left off and get to a part of the season where Johnson could play again.
For a player who had been a picture of health over his first seven seasons in the league, it’s an unexpected and unwelcome situation to be in.
“It’s crazy, it’s crazy, but even though I got hurt and stuff like that, it wasn’t a good situation, you know it had me down and stuff like that,” Johnson said. “But just what I came back from this offseason, this is nothing compared to what that was. I’ll be alright.”