TEMPE, Ariz. — David Johnson has never heard of Doug Russell. He’s not alone, and that’s no surprise. It’s been 81 years since the Pennsylvania-raised, Kansas State-educated Russell led the Chicago Cardinals and the NFL in rushing yards in 1935 with 499 yards in 12 games.
That is the second lowest rushing total ever to lead the NFL — including the strike-shortened 1982 season — and it is the last time a Cardinal led the league in rushing.
“Geez, that’s a long time,” Johnson said Saturday. “Hopefully, I can get that back for us.”
A lot of players would be loath to touch the topic, but Johnson admits it would be a cool accomplishment.
“Most definitely!” he said emphatically as the Cardinals prepared for a Monday Night game against the New York Jets’ second-ranked rushing defense (68.4 yards per game). “You dream of doing all that stuff — breaking records, making it to some Super Bowls, being a Hall of Famer. Ever since I was a little kid I’ve dreamed of that and I’ll bet everyone in the NFL thinks about that.”
Given the defense Johnson faces this week, and the defenses he will see again in the NFC West against the Seattle Seahawks and the Los Angeles Rams, the path to a rushing title won’t be easy (it never is). Before Sunday’s games, Johnson was third in the NFL with 457 yards on 91 attempts for a 5-yard average. Dallas rookie Ezekiel Elliot was 89 yards ahead of him in first, at 546 yards on 109 attempts (also a 5-yard average), and Tennessee’s DeMarco Murray was second at 461 yards on 91 attempts.
There are two factors that could work in Johnson’s favor. Backup Chris Johnson is on IR after suffering a groin injury against the Rams in Week 4. In the four games with Chris Johnson healthy, David Johnson averaged 16 carries a game. In the one game without Johnson (Week 5 in San Francisco), he carried 27 times.
Couple that with opponents’ defensive strategy that is consistently taking coach Bruce Arians’ deep ball away with more safety help over the top, and Johnson could see a steadier diet of carries that is more in line with Elliott’s weekly workload.
“I honestly don’t know what the plan is,” Johnson said. “I just go out every day and make sure I’m doing what I can, as far as route-wise, playbook-wise, being up on treatment, making sure my body is ready so that If I do have that many carries I can handle that.”
Arians clearly likes what he’s getting from Johnson in the run game, but he is quick to remind everyone that Johnson is just a second-year pro with multiple holes in his game.
“Holding onto the ball is the biggest thing,” said Arians of Johnson, who has two fumbles; one lost this season. “And eliminating the one or two mental errors that are costing him from having great games.”
Assuming he can stay healthy, Johnson will clearly eclipse Russell’s rushing total like hundreds of running backs have done since, but there is one Russell accomplishment Johnson may find hard to match. On Nov. 27, 1938 against the Cleveland Rams, Russell threw a 98-yard touchdown pass to Gaynell Tinsley.
“I did it in college (a 36-yarder at Northern Iowa) and I had one last year that I wish I would have thrown,” Johnson said, laughing. “I’ve always said I have a pretty good arm, so we’ll see.”