TEMPE, Ariz. – Not since 1985 have the Arizona Cardinals had a running back top 100 rushing yards four times in a single season.
Chris Johnson ended the 30-year drought with his 30-carry, 109-yard effort in the team’s most recent win at Cleveland.
The mark he tied belonged to Stump Mitchell, who wore the Cardinals uniform for nine seasons in the ‘80s.
Mitchell is now the team’s running backs coach.
“(Offensive coordinator) Harold Goodwin mentioned it to me,” Mitchell said, referring to his record being tied. “That’s unreal. All the running backs they’ve drafted high around here and for that (mark) to still exist, we just haven’t gotten the job done in the running phase because that definitely should not have been around that long.”
That it was Johnson, at age 30, to equal Mitchell’s accomplishment should not come as a surprise, according to Mitchell.
Yes, he’s getting up in their age.
Yes, this is his eighth NFL season.
But Johnson, despite the perceived drop in production a year ago, is a talented running back.
“He’s a skill guy,” Mitchell said. “He’s not going to lose his ability to do the things that he’s done in the past. His speed is not what it once was, but he was elite at that particular point in time. Guys just used to stop. They didn’t even used to chase him once he got a step on them because they knew it was over.”
Johnson’s story has been well documented.
Released by the Jets following six seasons in Tennessee, Johnson, who suffered a gunshot wound to the shoulder in March, didn’t hear his phone ring until the Cardinals called in August. They signed the former first-round draft pick to a one-year contract loaded with incentives.
Mitchell, in his third year on the Cardinals’ coaching staff, has long held Johnson in high regard.
“Chris has a resume,” said Mitchell, who as a running backs coach with Seattle was at Johnson’s East Carolina pro day in 2008. “He was everything that we thought he would be. Unfortunately for the Seahawks, he didn’t pass their physical at that particular point in time so we passed him because of a medical; but we knew he could play, that was no big deal.
“Chris has the athletic ability to still be a heck of a runner in this league. Fortunately enough for us we were able to get him, and fortunately enough for him things have worked out so he can still showcase the talents that he has.”
Johnson’s success this season was slow to unfold.
He rushed for 37 yards in Week 1 against New Orleans, getting most of his work in the fourth quarter after Andre Ellington suffered a knee injury.
Once inserted into the starting lineup, Johnson went for 72, 110, 83 and 103 yards, helping the Cardinals open the season with five straight games of at least 110 yards rushing — one more time than all of last season.
“I don’t think he was in the best of football shape when we got him. He’s rounding into that,” Mitchell said of Johnson. “He’s proven now that he’s going to be the best, and our goal as a running back room was to be the best running back group in the league because somehow (in the preseason) they had us ranked 27th out of 32 teams, and that pissed me off and I let the guys know that.
“Chris coming in definitely helped that. I’m not surprised about anything that he’s done. He’s been a 2,000-yard rusher in this league, a 1500-yard rusher in this league and now he’s just an outstanding person in the classroom.”
In his past two games, Johnson has gone over 100 yards rushing, something he had not done in back-to-back games since 2012 and something the Cardinals had not seen accomplished since Edgerrin James in 2006.
Halfway through the season, Johnson’s 676 total yards rushing is already more than what he gained in an entire season a year ago (663), and ranks third-best in the NFL, trailing only Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson (758) and Atlanta’s Devonta Freeman (721)
“It’s his goal and our goal as a running back group for him to lead the league in rushing when it’s all said and done. He’s very close there,” Mitchell said.
“We could be No. 1 had we not missed some reads in the running game. The offensive linemen, those guys are busting their butts all the time. All we have to do is make the right reads. It’s our goal and its Chris’ goal to lead the league in rushing this year.”