Sunday, December 29, 2013
Big day for CJ might have been Titans' finale
By Paul Kuharsky
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- An energized Chris Johnson turned his back, leaned into defenders, chugged his legs and rode a push from his blockers.
The 8-yard run on a second-and-7 in the fourth quarter was one of several big, assertive runs on a big day for the Tennessee Titans running back. CJ carried 27 times for 127 yards and a touchdown in the Titans season finale, a 16-10 win over Houston.
We'll have to wait and see if it was his finale with the team, but he knows it's possible. He's due $8 million in 2014 and is not regarded as the playmaker he sold himself as when he got a big contract after his third season.
Chris Johnson rushed for 127 yards and a touchdown in what could be his final game with the Titans.
Johnson's second 100-yard game of the season came against a team that ranked 24th in rushing defense coming into Week 17.
He finished the season with 1,077 yards on 279 carries for a 3.9-yard average, He ran for his six touchdowns. He also was fourth on the team with 42 catches. Those produced 345 yards and four additional scores.
Against Houston, he seemed on the verge of a breakaway several times but couldn't find anything longer than 23 yards. His season best was 30 yards.
The numbers aren't bad. But they weren't the numbers expected from a guy who was paid $10 million in 2013 and they may not be enough moving forward with another big salary on the horizon.
Johnson said he did ponder the idea that it might have been his last time at LP Field as a Titan.
"I gave a thought to that even just running out of the tunnel about it possibly being my last game in a Tennessee uniform," he said. "You know you give it a thought, but at the end of the day you can't let it affect how you play in the game."
The Titans came into the game with the 14th-ranked rushing offense in the NFL. It's not what they pledged to be as they drafted two new offensive line starters (first-round right guard Chance Warmack and fourth-round center Brian Schwenke) and signed a pricy free-agent left guard (Andy Levitre.)
How was the blocking this year compared to last?
"It was different," he said. "It was different things. A lot of times people weren't on the same page. It was a lot of little things. I feel like the offensive line this year has been better than the offensive line in past years. In this situation, you're playing with two rookies and you're playing with a new guy from free agency. A lot of situations and a lot of mistakes can make the offensive line not look good, but we stuck with it all year and continues to play hard."
In the fourth quarter on a 2-yard gain he fumbled, picked it up on a bounce and kept moving. It was the sort of fortuitous bounce the Titans haven't seen a lot of this season.
I do not believe Johnson has lost much, if any, speed. Defenses have just found a way to negate it. He produced the shortest long run and the lowest average per carry of his career, even as he topped 1,000 yards for the sixth time in six seasons, becoming just the sixth player to do that.
His strength is not to make people miss or to carry a pile, but that's what the Titans need their runners to do. The huge effort runs in which he knocked people back -- the chugging 8-yarder in this game, a big third-and-4 conversion last week in Jacksonville, a twisting TD run in the home game against the Colts -- were very notable, because they were rare.
Mike Munchak talked of increased opportunities producing better results for Johnson. The Titans run more because they are winning, they don't win because they are running more.
"He ran hard," Munchak said of Johnson. "It was fun to watch that the last two weeks. Again, that's what we hoped you would have seen more of throughout the season. It was hard. It was hard for a lot of reasons with some injuries up front, at the running back spot and playing against the type of teams we've had to play against."
I'm amazed that a knee injury to a No. 2 running back, hamstring and ankle injuries to a rookie center and the breakdown of an aging right tackle equate a crisis in Munchak's eyes.
Last year's team lost an incumbent starter before the season, then 19 more games from starters. This year it's been 11 total and some depth when Rob Turner went down after six games.
For a team that upgraded depth as well as front-liners, that shouldn't have undone a running game, an offense or a season.
Johnson won't take less money, he said last week. If Munchak is back, I expect him to vote to change course. A new coach might feel differently, but general manager Ruston Webster and president and CEO Tommy Smith will be in on the decision.
He's been a popular player and a well-liked teammate, but he has not often raised his hand and said "my bad."
Against Houston, we saw the electric back the team drafted 24th in 2008.
It seemed more like one last memory than a forecast of the future.