DAN BICKLEY

Cardinals’ David Johnson sets sights on regaining elite status in 2018

Aug 14, 2018, 8:20 PM | Updated: 8:29 pm
Arizona Cardinals running back David Johnson (31) runs with the ball next to defensive back Tre Bos...
Arizona Cardinals running back David Johnson (31) runs with the ball next to defensive back Tre Boston, right, during an NFL football practice Saturday, Aug. 4, 2018, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

You can paint David Johnson by the numbers. He’s a churning, burning machine built for mind-boggling statistics. Look at what he’s done entering the 2018 NFL season:

He’s 0-for-1 on the power play, where his sit-down strike failed to produce the compensation he deserves. He’s also averaging 14 yards a carry in his return to football, following an abbreviated stint in the Cardinals’ first preseason game.

The juxtaposition is exhilarating.

“I’m going to be out there and I’m going to play and show them why I should get a contract extension,” Johnson said. “That’s my biggest thing.”

Johnson’s current mindset represents the best decision of his nascent career. He remains unjaded and naïve, a joyful athlete full of humility and gratitude. His innocence makes him a treasure in the modern world of selfish athletes. He is ill-equipped for contentious relationships and messy holdouts, like those involving star players in Los Angeles (Aaron Donald), Seattle (Earl Thomas) and Oakland (Khalil Mack).

The Cardinals surely knew as much all along, that Johnson could never be comfortable in the role of malcontent, disrupting the message and momentum of a new head coach.

He’s the type who needs to please and yearns to impress. He prides himself on being the solution, not a problem. Who else carries a college football team on his shoulders while cleaning toilets and removing asbestos on the side?

“My thoughts are that I was out for a year,” Johnson said. “And I think 2016 was kind of forgotten and what I did. Especially with the running back group becoming so prominent now, and everyone talking about the running back in the NFL and we’re becoming more important. Not just me seeing it, but a lot of my family and friends talking about how they don’t talk about me anymore, and stuff like that.

“I just want to come out this season and prove how good of a player I am, especially coming back from 2016 and being better than I was in 2016.”

Johnson’s unexpected protest over fair compensation marked the first crisis point for a franchise in transition. It exposed an MVP candidate with a strong case and zero leverage. It proved that NFL running backs carry a terrible burden of proof to the negotiating table.

Prove too much early in your career, and employers will wonder about attrition, shelf-life and miles on the tires. Prove too little and the results are even worse, a position easily filled with interchangeable parts and cheaper alternatives. Experience cuts both ways for the men who endure the most damage on any given Sunday.

Judging by his comments, Johnson has a lot of voices in his ear. His inner-circle must recognize the danger of his compliance and obliging nature. Johnson is also lucky to be playing for the Cardinals, a franchise that understands the value of heart and loyalty. Once Michael Bidwill grabbed the wheel, the team shifted to a player-friendly approach, committed to fighting the opponent and not the men who wear their uniform. The paradigm shift is their new foundation.

But there are always limits.

Judging by the chronology, the Cardinals have treated Johnson’s salary concerns with diligence and respect. Otherwise, he might’ve broken bad, joining the aforementioned marquee holdouts. I’m also guessing the demands from Johnson’s camp stretch beyond the team’s tolerance, keeping this story in limbo.

To his credit, Johnson decided to get back on the playing field, proving his point with elite production and not previous statistics. His preseason debut was a tiny sample size but spoke to a man on a mission. His presence alone is a gift to new head coach Steve Wilks, who would field one of the worst offenses in the NFL without Johnson in the backfield.

“No question, I have a tremendous respect for David, not just as a player, but as a person,” Wilks said. “And the way he handled the situation, coming back and saying, ‘You know what? This is my job. I want to go to work.’

“And most important, he showed to his teammates that he’s committed and everything is going to take care of itself. He’s going to go out and perform well this year. And hopefully everything works out on the other side, when he gets what he wants. And we get what we want as well.”

That seems to intimate that Johnson’s payday will have to wait. But spend a few minutes in his company, and it’s clear he’s not playing for the money. Instead, he’s craving the status lost during his 15-game absence in 2017. He loves playing the role of hero and clearly feels the call of duty.

“I’m thinking that everyone outside this organization is thinking this is a down year for us,” Johnson said. “And I think that’s really adding fuel to our fire, to prove we’re still a dominant team. They’re forgetting that Chandler Jones led the league in sacks. Pat P. (Peterson) has been to the Pro Bowl every year. Fitz is still doing it, Budda (was) in the Pro Bowl and everyone knows what Sam Bradford can do when he’s healthy. I don’t know what people are thinking, but I’m excited about this.”

For now, it’s enough that Johnson’s smile and spirit remain intact. He has set impossible goals in 2018, hoping to become the first player in history with 1,500 rushing yards and 1,000 receiving yards. He’s also the rare tailback who can reach those rare heights, whose cleats ended up in the Hall of Fame after the first month of his NFL career.

As for fantasy football players who face their own tough decisions in the coming weeks?

“I would definitely pick me,” Johnson said.

Only a fool would a bet against him. Especially when he’s betting on himself.

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