As my radio partner Dan Bickley and I exited the Arizona Cardinals training facility in Tempe Monday, Chris Johnson was walking the other way, down the ramp into the complex.
He was limping badly and holding a large envelope, presumably the results of an MRI on his left leg.
“How is it,” Bickley asked.
“I’m fine, it’s just a bruise,” the running back answered.
Either Johnson hadn’t received the results or wasn’t exactly truthful in the brief exchange. Hours later, Jay Glazer of Fox Sports reported that Johnson had suffered a fractured tibia and could be out for an extended period of time.
It’s a blow for the Cardinals, no doubt. Johnson has been a key cog in a much-improved running game that ranks 12th in the NFL, averaging 112.5 yards per game. He’s the league’s fourth-leading rusher with 814 yards. Not bad for a guy who was picked up on an incentive-laden deal midway through training camp in August.
According to reports, Johnson is expected to miss six to eight weeks with the injury.
It hurts, no doubt. But the Cardinals will be alright.
Johnson’s absence will mean a bigger workload for rookie David Johnson, who outside of a few fumbles, has been outstanding this season. Andre Ellington, who suffered a turf toe injury Sunday against San Francisco, may be able to play soon. The roster also features third-year back Stepfan Taylor and the Cardinals could summon Kerwynn Williams from the practice squad. Williams saw action late last season and had Arizona’s only 100-yard rushing game of 2014 when he rumbled for 100 yards on 19 carries in an early-December win over Kansas City.
Back to Johnson. His production has been way down in recent weeks. In his first eight games, Johnson averaged 84.5 yards per game and nearly 4.8 yards per carry. In his last three games — against Seattle, Cincinnati and San Francisco — he’s carried 55 times for 138 yards. That’s only 46 yards per game and 2.5 per carry. His longest run in that three-game span has been nine yards.
Had Johnson hit the wall? Against San Francisco, there wasn’t much room to run. But it also appeared that the veteran lacked the same explosiveness he showed earlier in the season.
I’m not saying losing Johnson is a good thing. It’s not, especially with only five games remaining in the regular season and the Cardinals looking to lock down a first-round bye in the NFC Playoffs.
What I am saying is that the Cardinals are pretty well-equipped to deal with his loss. David Johnson and Ellington (if he’s healthy) provide adequate running skills and are better threats to catch the ball out of the backfield.
And let’s face it, as long as Carson Palmer is healthy, this team is in good shape and poised for a real run at the Super Bowl.
Arizona squeezed nearly 200 carries out of a 30-year-old running back that was on the scrap heap just three-and-a-half months ago. Kudos to general manager Steve Keim for getting Johnson on an affordable “prove-it” type of deal. Kudos to Johnson for playing a major role in the Cardinals’ offense for the first 11 games.
“Next man up.”
It’s a saying the Cardinals had to spout far too often last season. But that mentality just prepares them more for life without their starting running back.
They’re ready for it.
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