- Paul Kuharsky, ESPN Staff Writer
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If the Titans want out from under Chris Johnson and his $10 million base salary for 2013, they have to release him by the end of Friday.
Of that salary, $9 million locks in as a guarantee if he’s on the roster past the fifth day of the waiver period, which began Monday.
A report by The Tennessean’s Jim Wyatt before the season ended said the team had no plans to cut Johnson. Since then, coach Mike Munchak has been making moves that indicate if he’s going to go down in his third year at the helm, he’s going to go down his way. That left me wondering if things might have changed.
Then Wyatt wrote this morning that Johnson was feeling good after a recent half-hour chat with Munchak.
“I am more excited about this year than any other year after talking to coach,” Johnson said today. “I feel better about some of the things we’re going to do, and I want to be a part of it. I feel like coach Munchak wants to put the team back to some winning ways and get things going in the right direction. I feel good about it.”
The most likely scenario is that the Titans look to add a big back and return to the shared-workload system they ran with Johnson and LenDale White in 2008.
But a case could have been made for moving on from Johnson, and I think there was a time Munchak would probably have liked to do so.
They can afford that salary. Ultimately, it should be framed as more of a philosophical debate than a financial one.
The Munchak-Johnson conversation indicates the decision has been made.
But it's worth considering what needed to be considered:
Home run threat: Johnson can break off huge runs, and that’s where his big value comes from. He has six career touchdowns of 80 yards or more. No other player in league history has more than three. That’s incredible, and those runs do a lot for a team. Still, if the rest of his runs are attempts to find that home run and don’t put the Titans in an advantageous down and distance, is that a sufficient trade-off? I tend to say no.
Now if Johnson is changing it up with a more physical guy who can convert third-and-2 more regularly and do more to ensure the Titans aren’t in second-and-12, that changes. Johnson is largely a boom-or-bust guy. Five years of featuring a boom-or-bust back has produced just one playoff team -- not that it’s the lone factor.
Consider that the team’s primary back in its prime years since the move to Tennessee was Eddie George, and the frequent lament was that he couldn’t break away for a big play. Now the lament with Johnson is that he isn’t productive enough down to down. See how a team can wind up in a no-win situation?
You’re rarely going to get the best of both worlds, and you don’t need a guy who can give you both to win.
So given a choice between a home run threat who’s going to strikeout more often or the style they had with George where, in his prime, he was pretty good at getting a couple yards, what do they prefer?
Replacement possibilities: Javon Ringer is coming off a knee injury, hasn’t proved himself and is a pending free agent. Jamie Harper has shown little. If the Titans moved away from CJ, the guy who would take his carries isn’t on the roster.
But you’d have to have an awful lot of faith in your ability to find that guy. The Titans are a team full of holes. Cutting Johnson would have created another big one, and they don’t exactly have the record of hole-filling that suggests it wouldn’t be an issue.
The scheme: Johnson did run for 2,000 yards in Mike Heimerdinger’s scheme that featured zone-running principles. Under Dowell Loggains as offensive coordinator, the Titans will be more intent on returning to a similar philosophy.
It’s not the best fit for Johnson, at least not as the singular, primary ball carrier. Johnson looks to be creative in searching for room. Zone schemes call for a guy to make a cut and go, not consider and reconsider the path.
“CJ would be decent in that scheme but far from ideal,” said ESPN's Matt Williamson. “You need to be decisive and, when you see it, really hit it. And generally, that fits a bigger back. CJ can certainly hit it at times when he sees it and can take it the distance, but he is far from an Alfred Morris type that consistently churns out yardage, albeit in smaller chunks, run after run.”
If the Titans put Johnson in a timeshare, how will he react to it? My guess is not well. Will that disrupt the locker room and create a headache for coaches and management? Will it lead him to mope? It sure could.
The contract: When he was holding out in 2011, I said they needed to sign him. Most fans did, too. For a long time, the conversation was about a lack of playmakers. Well, they finally had one, and while he wasn’t at what ranks as a premium position anymore, he was the best they'd had in terms of big plays in a long time.
He got four more years worth $53.5 million with $30 million guaranteed tacked onto the two years he had remaining on his rookie deal.
There is a misperception that the Titans don’t spend. They sure spent with Johnson, and now they take heat for it. In hindsight, it wasn’t a good deal. But it hasn’t destroyed them. Keep him as is and they are fine financially, with enough room to get the other parts they need.
While he has said money didn’t change him, Johnson has been a lot more tentative since he signed that deal than he was while he was trying to position himself for that new contract.
The expectations: As Johnson campaigned for a new contract in 2011, he sold himself as not just a back but a playmaker who transcended the position. That was good for selling himself. Predicting 2,000-yard seasons consistently gets him headlines.
But what he does when he says those things is set the bar unreasonably high. He didn’t say, “I’m a playmaker, not just a running back, so long as my line is playing great or so long as I have consistency with a running backs coach.” When it circles back after the fact to those sorts of issues, they come across as excuses.
He doesn’t seem real invested. Last week as a guest on Nashville's The Midday 180 from radio row at the Super Bowl, he said there would be no bad blood if the Titans let him go. Some heard that and almost felt like he was wishing to be released. What would have come across better was, “I want to be back. I’m worth it, and I can be a big part of a big turnaround.”
For the $10 million that’s coming, it’s hardly unreasonable to want to hear that.
So do we have a verdict?
“I assume he is untradeable, but I think I would let him go,” Williamson said. “That is just so much to pay a guy that isn’t perfect for what you do at the position. Use that money on a safety or interior OL and draft a bigger RB.”
Said former Colts president and current ESPN analyst Bill Polian: “CJ cannot carry the load by himself simply because of size. … Rather than focus on system, I would focus on Javon Ringer’s health. If he can take some load off CJ as he has in the past, they become far more efficient. If his injury prevents that, then they must find an adequate replacement for Ringer.”
I’m torn about what they should have done. But I tend to think it wouldn't have been wise to create another hole. Cut him and watch him land in Detroit or somewhere else, and when he makes big plays, you’re going to take grief -- and maybe feel some, too.
I’d plan to find a guy to pair him with.
But I’m glad it wasn't my decision, or money.