DAN BICKLEY

David Johnson’s demise weighing down Arizona Cardinals’ run game

Nov 12, 2019, 4:26 PM | Updated: Nov 14, 2019, 12:29 pm

Running back David Johnson #31 of the Arizona Cardinals during the NFL game against the Atlanta Fal...

Running back David Johnson #31 of the Arizona Cardinals during the NFL game against the Atlanta Falcons at State Farm Stadium on October 13, 2019 in Glendale, Arizona. The Cardinals defeated the Falcons 34-33. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

David Johnson can’t. Or David Johnson won’t.

One is acceptable. The other is a funeral for a player that once dominated the NFL.

Either way, it’s a bad look. The deconstruction of Johnson is a terrible tentacle attached to the 2019 season, weighing down a flourishing offense, yielding an even bigger question:

Will he ever again?

There was a time when only a fool would bet against Johnson. That time has passed.

Would you bet on him now?

Once, Johnson flourished at setting and achieving lofty goals. He was a small-school star at Northern Iowa, cleaning toilets for pay and working as an asbestos remover. His cleats were shipped to the Hall of Fame during the first month of his professional career, after he became the first NFL player to score rushing, receiving and kickoff-return touchdowns in his first two games.

He gained over 2,000 yards from scrimmage in 2016. He set the bar higher, hoping to achieve 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards receiving in the same season.

These days, the Cardinals would settle for a positive gain from scrimmage, a handoff that doesn’t result in a predictable loss.

I apologize in advance if Johnson’s problems are health related, if there’s something we don’t know. But he had three weeks off entering Sunday’s loss to the Buccaneers. He proclaimed himself fully recovered and healthy. He knew Kenyan Drake was suddenly threatening his starting job.

And with all of that apparent fuel, Johnson delivered the most sputtering, plodding, ominous performance of his career. He was benched down the stretch for a second-half fumble, even though it was his first fumble of the season.

And yet it was way more than a fumble. The powerfully-built Johnson was stripped of the ball by a defender in a high-leverage situation, the kind of defender he once punished in the past. He was Punk’d and exposed by an opponent that didn’t exactly fear what Johnson was bringing to the field.

Much has changed since Johnson’s hardscrabble path to the NFL. He got married. He became a father. He became fabulously wealthy, recipient of a $39 million contract from the Cardinals after his sit-down strike in 2018, with over $31 million fully guaranteed.

He has also absorbed great punishment. He has over 1,000 touches in his professional career, playoffs included. He ran on the third rail for NFL running backs in 2016, subject to a season of overuse that ultimately carries a heavy price tag.

Some wonder if Johnson’s decline is correlated to the hard love and cussing Johnson endured under former head coach Bruce Arians. If anything, it was the 373 touches Arians laid on Johnson during his second season, along with another 308 touches he shouldered for the hapless Cardinals in 2018.

Studies show that kind of heavy attrition doesn’t go unnoticed by the human body. And suddenly, Johnson has a lot to lose. His wife previously lobbied for him to retire, after one of his recent injuries. He has also scored a ton of touchdowns, where the sledding is toughest. He’s endured hundreds of crushing tackles, each the equivalent of garden-variety car accidents.

He wouldn’t be the first running back to lose the taste for battle. Not at the NFL’s roughest position. Not with good money in the bank.

Alas, Johnson is also losing the special status he once enjoyed in Arizona. He was once the most naïve, humble superstar you could ever imagine, a people-pleaser who did anything his coaches asked, accepting every criticism with a smile.

He was groomed to take the torch from Larry Fitzgerald, who taught Johnson how to dress well and invest well. How to invest in the community, represent the franchise and always say the right things in public.

Now Johnson is a liability in the running game. He has a contract that will be an albatross around the neck of the 2020 Cardinals, no matter what they decide to do with their diminished running back. Fitzgerald’s baton will now be passed to quarterback Kyler Murray, who is full of ambition and hunger, just like Johnson once was.

It’s all very depressing.

So here’s hoping that Johnson is still marginalized by some unresolved injury or that his body needs to mend from heavy deployment in the past few years. That our former MVP candidate will suddenly spring to life, showing us a juke or a jump-cut or the naked ambition that marked his stunning ascension. Something to prove he isn’t gone forever, set up for life, checked out for good.

Reach Bickley at dbickley@bonneville.com. Listen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.

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Western Governors University

Dan Bickley

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