Dealing Cards: Though Chris Johnson’s season is over, his career does not have to be
TEMPE, Ariz. — Last week, Chris Johnson learned that his season had come to an end.
The running back had been rehabbing from a groin injury suffered in Week 4, and though the Cardinals could have designated him as their player who would come off injured reserve and be eligible to play as soon as this week’s game against Washington, the team instead gave defensive back Tyvon Branch the nod.
“Oh god yeah, it was the hardest decision,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said on Nov. 23, when he first talked about the move. “I put it off as long as I could to make sure that we could do the right thing for the team.”
Arians’ reasoning, he said, had to do with a need for help on special teams — which Branch can provide — and that’s how it was presented to Johnson.
“Basically, going into the situation, me and Ty both knew it was a situation that they can only bring one of us back, so mainly the only thing we really did was just focus on what we could control, and that’s getting as healthy as possible,” Johnson said Wednesday. “It was a situation when it was time to come back, we needed some help on special teams or whatever. That’s kind of what it was, what the deal was.”
The 31-year-old Johnson had run for 95 yards and one touchdown on 25 carries this season. Last year, in his first with the Cardinals, he led the team with 814 rushing yards to go along with three touchdowns on 196 attempts. His 2015 campaign also ended with him on IR, after he fractured his tibia in a Week 12 win.
At that time, he would have been eligible to play if the Cardinals had reached the Super Bowl. Now, even if Arizona makes that kind of run, he will have no choice but to sit it out.
“It definitely didn’t go the way I wanted it to, you know, coming back and getting hurt, and on top of that us not having a good year,” he said. “So it definitely didn’t go how any of us expected it to go, but it’s life. That’s life.”
The rest of the way this season, for as long as it lasts, Johnson said his mindset is set on rehabbing, and right now he’s “feeling good.”
“Getting back all the way healthy and stuff like that, so I’ll just continue to get healthy and just see where I go from there,” he added.
Once he’s healthy, the free-agent-to be has every intention of continuing his career.
In his ninth NFL season, Johnson has amassed 9,537 rushing yards along with 55 touchdowns. He has been to the Pro Bowl three times and was a First Team All-Pro in 2009 as well as the AP Offensive Player of the year that same season.
Though he has not topped the 1,000-yard mark since 2013 — his final season with the Tennessee Titans — he is confident there is still something left in the tank, which he owes in part to his truncated two seasons in the desert.
“My body feels fresh, so I feel like I’ve got a couple more years until I’m ready to shut it down,” he said.
Where Johnson plans on spending those couple of years is anyone’s guess. Asked if it could be in Arizona, he noted his contract status and said he’s not sure how it will go.
But there was interest in his services last offseason and there figures to be interest once again, and while Johnson would like to play for and win a Super Bowl — it’s part of the reason why he chose to stay in Arizona rather than leave for a larger role and more money elsewhere — on a personal level, his motivation for prolonging his career is different.
“I’ve done a lot of stuff in this league and came back from a lot of stuff, so I just want to go out the right way, you feel me?” he said. “That’s it, just go out the right way.”
And if no teams call in the offseason or if he cannot find a situation he wants to be a part of? If Week 4 was the last game action of Johnson’s career, he said he could be content.
“Yes, absolutely,” he said. “But I don’t think it’s the end of the road for me, just going off how my body feels and just going off the things that I was able to do when I did get in the game and just from training camp last year, I know I’ve still got time left.”
The official injury report can be found here, and you’ll note that both QB Carson Palmer and WR Larry Fitzgerald did not not practice Wednesday. Arians said it was their scheduled day off, which has been the case every Wednesday for the last few weeks. As for the players who were not taking scheduled days off — most notably CB Justin Bethel (foot), WR John Brown (sickle-cell trait), TE Jermaine Gresham (flu) and CB Patrick Peterson (knee) — Arians said they all, with the exception of Brown, are expected back Thursday.
“He was able to run today and then it tightened back up,” Arians said of Brown. “So just continue to see doctors and see what protocols we can get for him.”
On the flip side of Chris Johnson’s season coming to an end was the reality that Branch’s would continue. The first-year Cardinal said he feels good.
“I had a great rehab, did a good job,” he said. “I’m still rehabbing it every day, still working it every day. So I’m just getting better and better every day.”
Branch said he feels good enough to play this week against Washington, and that if the team needs him, he will be ready. After missing the team’s last seven games, he is looking forward to getting back on the field.
“Man, it’s like, you know how you get a brand new outfit for school, that first day, you’d be super excited to go?” he opined. “That’s how it is right now.”
In terms of what kind of role Branch expects to play upon his return, he is not sure. He said Arizona has a “plug-and-play defense,” where guys move around on a weekly basis depending on what the gameplan calls for. He understands that special teams will likely be a part of it.
“Wherever they put me I’m going to go out there and give it 110 percent,” he said. “If it’s special teams, if they need a new holder, if they need me to try to placekick, I’ll try to do that. It’s whatever we need.”
Williams in the Wildcat
According to the official stat books, Kerwynn Williams did not have a single carry in last Sunday’s loss to the Atlanta Falcons.
Technically, though, he did.
In the second quarter, with the score tied at 10, Williams lined up in the shotgun as part of the Wildcat formation and took the snap. He bounced around the left side and picked up 11 yards, though the gain was wiped out by a holding penalty on center A.Q. Shipley.
It was not the only direct snap Williams took, as earlier in the game he handed the ball off to fellow running back David Johnson, who picked up 16 yards.
Williams said the last time he ran the Wildcat was in college at Utah State.
“I think it went solid,” he said. “The most important thing is not trying to do too much in that you want to make the right read, you want to make sure you’re doing a good job to put the team in a positive position. So I think it went pretty good, in that sense.”
The third-year pro, who has bounced around between the Cardinals’ practice squad and active roster, has shown in the past an ability to help out as a runner, though with Johnson and Andre Ellington ahead of him on the depth chart, traditional carries may be tough to come by. But if the Wildcat stays in the playbook, Williams may have found his role.
“I think it’s always an option — I think that’s really what you want to accomplish,” he said. “When you do that, you just want to give the opposite team another look that they have to prepare for, so I think when you’re able to do that, the mission’s always accomplished.”
As a running back, what Williams did running the ball out of the Wildcat is not rare. Passing, on the other hand, is. Williams was credited with one passing attempt in college (it was incomplete) and said it’s not likely he will be asked to throw the ball with the Cardinals.
“You know, we haven’t put a throw in, but my arm’s always ready, if needed,” he said. “But we have a good quarterback in Carson, so I don’t think we’ll ever need me to throw the ball.”