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No credence to sophomore slump concept for RBs

7/28/2009

Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

Many of those looking to punch holes in the Titans' 2009 possibilities are pointing to a prediction that mystifies me: a sophomore slump for Chris Johnson.

Let's look at Steve Slaton in the same way here, too, as he'll probably need to match or surpass what he did in 2008 for the Texans to make a playoff push in 2009.

Sophomore slumps are a foreign concept to me as they pertain to the NFL. People are going to "figure out" young, fast running backs and slow them in ways they could not the year before?

I wanted to make sure I was not out on a limb here, so I threw this idea to National Football Post's Michael Lombardi, the former Oakland, Cleveland and San Francisco executive.

"I've never heard that," he said. "I've never seen a back make a mark and fall apart, barring injury. The top guys have a four to six year lifespan. I think Johnson will have a great year. I think they will both have good years. They'll know the systems even better."

As for the idea that the two backs will get figured out, Lombardi said if it could have been done, it would have been done already.

"It's like with a basketball player, if he can't go to his left hand, it doesn't take six years to figure it out," he said. "When there is enough tape, you know what to do to handle the guy, and they didn't handle the guy. Chris Johnson was on his way to controlling the [playoff] game. If he doesn't get hurt, Baltimore's not in the championship game and that's at the end of the year and Rex Ryan is a pretty good coach."

Coaches regularly talk about the biggest jump for players coming between their first and second seasons. That's the expectation for linemen, linebackers, skill position guys, everyone. And it's the course the majority of successful players in the league follow.

Johnson's been a bit noisy this offseason with his talk of breaking off from "Smash and Dash," nicknaming himself "Every Coach's Dream" and his regular tweets. Slaton's been a lot quieter.

All indications are both players have had no physical issues, which is the one thing that can throw the typical process off. Johnson recovered from the ankle injury he suffered in the Titans' playoff loss on a standard timetable.

One or both could have bad second seasons, but they won't be part of any big trend of backs slumping in their sophomore years.

Chris Fallica of ESPN Stats & Information put together this chart for me, combining rushing and receiving numbers where he thought appropriate.

Going back to 2003, at least as many notable backs made gains in production in Year 2 as suffered big drop-offs.

That doesn't guarantee anything for Johnson or Slaton, good or bad. Maybe one or both follows the course of Maurice Jones-Drew, a great back whose numbers dipped some in his second season, instead of Joseph Addai, who made a slight gain in yards and a big gain in scoring in his second year.

Do you have a gut feeling that Johnson or Slaton will not match his rookie performance? Dandy.

Let's just not pretend we've watched prominent backs in large numbers get "figured out" and suffer production plummets their second time around.

One last note connected to my chat with Lombardi: Be wary of labeling Johnson and Slaton as strictly speedsters.

What people tend not to realize, Lombardi reminded, "is you gener
ate power from your speed."