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David Johnson making NFL history is a bright spot in Cardinals’ loss to Saints

Arizona Cardinals running back David Johnson (31) scores a touchdown as New Orleans Saints cornerback B.W. Webb defends during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 18, 2016, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

GLENDALE, Ariz. — In a season that has had little in the way of bright spots, David Johnson has consistently been exactly that for the Arizona Cardinals.

On Sunday against the New Orleans Saints, with 53 rushing yards and another 55 through the air, the second-year running back became the first player in NFL history to total 100 yards from scrimmage in the first 14 games of a season.

“I think you have to acknowledge anyone that does something for the first time in the history of the NFL,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said following the game, which the Cardinals lost 48-41. “That’s very unique. I’m very happy for David. I’m very proud of him.”

That Johnson has done what he has would be impressive on its own. Given that he has regularly torched opponents during a season in which Arizona runs out what is hardly a juggernaut on offense only adds to the accomplishment.

Everyone who faces the Cardinals, who are now 5-8-1 on the season, understands that Johnson is their focal point. Yet, no one has found a way to stop him and his combination of tough running with excellent receiving.

In Sunday’s game, he had just 12 rushing attempts, which is a low number for a back of his caliber but also not any kind of sign that he was not involved in the offense. More than any other game this season, Johnson was lined up wide as a receiver.

After the game, Johnson said the last time he spent that much time as a receiver was his freshman year at Northern Iowa — when he was a receiver.

“We scripted it up all week to have me play receiver a little bit,” he said. “I enjoy doing that. Any way I have a chance to have the ball in my hand.”

Johnson was targeted five times, with four of them going for completions. As much of a mismatch he’s become at the running back position, his versatility afforded Arians a chance to tweak his lineup in an effort to get the most out of his offense.

At times, Arizona played with a package of Johnson, running back and receiver Andre Ellington, and running back Kerwynn Williams in the game at the same time.

“Well, we were missing a receiver, and David’s one of our best three,” Arians said of the team cutting Michael Floyd. “It never hurts to give Kerwynn (Williams) the ball and we had him designed for the passes, the run checks, and they ended up double covering David a few times, so Kerwynn popped a couple runs.

“We tried to get as many of our explosive guys on the field — Andre (Ellington) in a third down package and David where he could get out in space and catch some balls.”

Williams ended up leading the Cardinals in rushing yards, with 63 on three carries, while Ellington caught one pass in the first quarter.

That Johnson, a running back, demanded double coverage as a receiver may seem a bit odd. However, Johnson said he expected that going in, albeit maybe not to the extent that it happened.

But defenses bracketing him, he said, was a bit ironic.

“Especially since I was joking with one of the DBs, and he was telling me when they were scouting us, (they were told) don’t think of me as a running back, think of me as a receiver,” he said. “That was really cool to hear, the respect, and hearing that was pretty cool.”

Johnson, who on a better team would absolutely be an MVP candidate, has quickly made a name for himself since being a third-round pick out of Northern Iowa.

“I said it a couple weeks ago, Carson (Palmer) said it, he’s the National Football League’s MVP,” receiver Larry Fitzgerald said. “There is nobody better than he is; he’s playing at the highest level. He does it in the run game, the pass game, great pass protector as well. The guy can do it all.

“It’s a real joy and a pleasure to be able to watch a guy do something like that and be his teammate.”

For Johnson, setting an NFL record Sunday was a bit tempered by the fact that the Cardinals lost the game. He said he wishes he could have done more, be it run the ball better or get open more often when he was lined up out wide.

Yet game after game, week after week, Johnson has produced, even when not necessarily at his best.

“I was on the sidelines saying, ‘Man, I’ve got to get David the ball,’ Arians said. “Just to win this game, but to also get him his yardage, because if he’s getting yards, we’re winning. But, I never thought he had it today.”

Perhaps Johnson could have done more. But in some ways, he’s done enough. If nothing else, his name is now in the record books.

Johnson had an idea he was close to setting the record, which took until the fourth quarter, and he felt pretty confident he had done it when he scored his second touchdown on a seven-yard run that tied the game.

In truth, he eclipsed the 100-yard mark with a five-yard run a few plays prior, though the touchdown was a nice exclamation point on what was a historic afternoon for him.

Johnson admitted he did not anticipate this kind of success this quickly, but said he was joking with Fitzgerald about already being 25 years old and needing to do as much as he can as soon as he can.

Johnson also has not had much time to reflect on his accomplishments, having recently moved and with a baby on the way.

“I feel like I’m always busy, so hopefully I do have time to sit back and reflect on everything that’s happened,” he said.

Johnson is not necessarily done making history, as he is climbing in the Cardinals’ record books. He still has a shot at becoming the third player in NFL history to have at least 1,000 rushing yards and 1,000 receiving yards in the same season.

That, Johnson said, is on his radar, though his main focus is on doing whatever he can to help the team win.

Fourteen games. Fourteen performances with 100 yards from scrimmage. No one before Johnson had ever accomplished the feat, though with two games left, the new record has not necessarily been set.

“As impressive as a stat as that is, you kind of expect it, he’s that good of a player,” Palmer said. “In the backfield, outside running routes — he’s spectacular, as you guys have all seen this year and last year.

“Why not go for 16?”

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