Tennessee Titans: Chris Johnson

Checking in on Titans who moved on

August, 20, 2014
Four of my NFL Nation colleagues were kind enough to share some feedback on how the four most notable former Tennessee Titans are faring with their new teams:

Rich Cimini on Jets running back Chris Johnson:

"He rushed for 63 yards on 10 carries in the second preseason game. Coaches say he has regained his vertical burst, but lateral quickness still not 100 percent coming off January knee surgery. He’s part of 3-man backfield. He feels he'll thrive because the Jets' offense is less predictable than Tennessee’s."

Tania Ganguli on Texans quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick:

"After a lackluster outing in his first preseason game, the Texans were much happier with Fitzpatrick's performance against the Atlanta Falcons this past weekend. He wasn't Tom Brady, but he got the job done. Coach Bill O'Brien said that's how the Texans need him to play."

Nick Wagoner on Rams receiver Kenny Britt:

"Britt has been one of the Rams' three best receivers in camp and has been a pleasant surprise in terms of leading the team's young receiver group. He's been especially helpful for Brian Quick, who is similar in size but needs work on how to use it. Britt is likely to be one of the team's starters when the season opens, though, as always, he needs to produce when the real games begin."

Pat Yasinskas on Buccaneers cornerback Alterraun Verner:

"He missed a ton of camp with a hamstring injury. He went from the third day of camp all the way through the end of camp until Tuesday when he returned to team drills. He’s missed a ton of time and getting used to a new system that’s obviously a problem. He said he’s been getting as many mental reps as he can, but he realizes he needs to get on the field. I don’t think he’ll play in the third preseason game because I don’t think he’s ready. I think they might throw him out there in the fourth game just to test him out."
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Tennessee Titans are moving away from having a one-back workhorse -- Chris Johnson was cut in the spring -- and will have a running game by committee.

The committee will feature Bishop Sankey, their best all-around back; Shonn Greene, a short-yardage power back; and Dexter McCluster, a change-up pass-catcher. Fullback Jackie Battle can back up the Greene role, while return man Leon Washington can back up the McCluster role.

I figure, when things aren’t good, there is the potential for rumbling about backs being unable to get into a rhythm.

Running backs coach Sylvester Croom says that should not be a complaint.

“I don’t worry about it at all with this group, because the strength is the group,” he said. “They are great people. Each of them has a unique skill set that we need and I think that is really the trend in the National Football League.

"It’s going to be very difficult to find the guy who’s got the power of Shonn Greene, the blocking ability of a Jackie Battle, the change of direction and speed of Dexter McCluster, the veteran experience and hands and quickness of Leon Washington. You’re just not going to find that in one guy these days.”

“They’ll all contribute, and the great things about it is they are all fans of each other, and that’s going to be a big plus for us.”

Johnson used to suggest that when he couldn’t get going it was because he didn’t get enough touches.

Without talking about Johnson, or, I am confident, intending to take a shot at him, Croom said it doesn’t take many carries to show what you can do to get going.

“If you’re out there on a drive and you get four or five carries, I mean how much longer is it going to take you to get rhythm?” he said. “Certain guys are going to get reps on certain things. And so when they get into the game, there will be a rotation. I’ve done it before and never had a problem.”
Additional thoughts on the Tennessee Titans' schedule:

1. I knew who the opponents were, but until I looked at them in schedule form it hadn’t quite struck me how few top quarterbacks the Titans and defensive coordinator Ray Horton will have to scheme for. Nick Foles was the NFL’s top-rated quarterback last year. They’ll also see Andrew Luck twice, Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning and Tony Romo. Those guys are not locks to be great every Sunday. There is no Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, or Aaron Rodgers. And the Titans will see the Cleveland Browns, the New York Jets, the Jacksonville Jaguars twice and the Houston Texans twice. That’s six games against teams who aren’t yet set at quarterback.

2. If the Titans are as bad as they were last season, those paltry crowds for late-season home games are less likely based on opponents. The New York Giants and Jets will bring a lot of interest and fans no matter how they rate in December, and the Colts' Luck may rate as the biggest star visiting LP Field all season.

3. Chris Johnson’s Dec. 14 return to LP Field with the Jets is slated to be one of just three games in that 3:05 p.m. CT window. But it’s the least attractive of the three. Denver is at San Diego and San Francisco is at Seattle in the same window before Dallas at Philly in the night slot. The Cowboys and Eagles could be flexed out of that late slot though it's typically a ratings-grabber regardless of records.

4. A less notable homecoming will take place in Week 1, when Dexter McCluster returns to Kansas City. A second-round draft pick out of Ole Miss by the Chiefs in 2010, McCluster spent time as running back and wide receiver in Kansas City but never really took off. The Titans grabbed him at the start of free agency and will use him as a pass catching running back. He’ll start the second stage of his NFL career going against a familiar defense. Right tackle Michael Oher will travel back to Baltimore for Titans-Ravens on Nov. 9. Defensive lineman Al Woods will also play against his former team when the Titans host Pittsburgh on Nov. 17.

5. The Titans will play their first nine games and 13 in all at noon CT, with a 3:05 p.m. CT start at home against the Jets on Dec. 14, a "Monday Night Football" game at home against Pittsburgh Nov. 17 and a Thursday night game at Jacksonville Dec. 18. All Sunday afternoon games beginning in Week 5 are subject to a time change based on the potential for a game being flexed into Sunday night and others being shuffled to fill the resulting gap.
Reading the coverage of the Tennessee Titans ...

Chris Johnson is upbeat about his fresh start with the Jets. “I have great memories of playing with the Titans,” he told Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean. "I love my people in Tennessee. It was a great run. But sometimes people have to move on. I was upset about it at first, how things played out, but now I have a fresh start, and I am excited.”

To which I say: His stance on the possibility of taking a pay cut with the Titans is a baffler. He was adamant to Wyatt, twice, that he wouldn’t take less money but is seemingly offended they didn’t offer him one.

The Jets were the last team to see Johnson’s big-play abilities firsthand, says David Boclair of the Nashville Post.

Anthony Barr is the pick for Pete Prisco of CBS Sports in his newest mock draft. Prisco still thinks the Titans need an edge rusher. As do I.

Johnson gives the Jets a new dimension, says ESPN.com’s Rich Cimini.

Michael Roos likes that the Titans' offensive line starters are established at this stage, says Craig Peters of the team’s website.

Chris Johnson has found a new home, and it’s with the New York Jets.

ESPN's Adam Schefter reports it’s a two-year deal. ProFootballTalk says it has "a base value of $8 million, with another $1 million available in incentives based on yardage." I still want to see the guarantee and the structure to have a real sense of it. Johnson was due an $8 million base salary this year with the Titans before they cut him.

He could be great for the Jets. If Johnson plays well there, keep in mind it doesn't mean he would have played well in Nashville.

I see two big questions ahead for him.
  1. How does he react to what’s likely to be a reduced role? He was THE centerpiece of the Titans' offense for the bulk of his time in Tennessee. Will the Jets be selling him as that or giving him a narrower role and not talking constantly about their desire to give him 20 carries a game? The role is likely to be narrower, and he’s a guy who understandably wants the ball and enjoys NFL stardom. He’s been a good teammate, though not necessarily a great team guy. What direction do things go with that?
  2. How does he handle the New York press when things don’t go well? Fair or not, a good share of Jets fans will view him as an offensive savior. If he averages 3.9 yards a carry as he did for the Titans last year, if he fails to break an occasional tackle in the backfield, if he suggests the negative issue is with the offensive line or play calling, a giant press corps will be more difficult for him to deal with than our small group in Nashville ever was.
Mike Reinfeldt was the Tennessee Titans' general manager from 2007 through 2011.

He was promoted after that, but after just one year working as the team’s senior executive vice president/chief operating officer, he was fired over a failure to push aggressively enough in the Peyton Manning free-agent derby.

It was Reinfeldt who struck a deal to end Chris Johnson's contract holdout in 2011, with a six-year deal worth $53.9 million with $13 million guaranteed.

The Titans got out of the remaining $23 million of that deal when they officially released Johnson.

That left me wondering how the biggest signings of Reinfeldt's five-year term as GM has panned out.

That deal was too much for Johnson, though at the time it didn’t look so bad given his production, the brightness of his star and the Titans' need for a dynamic playmaker.

It’s probably unreasonable to think Reinfeldt should have seen or anticipated what would unfold in the following three years in terms of the economics at running back.

How about Reinfeldt’s other primary deals? There weren't too many major ones.

RT David Stewart: A seven-year, $36.8 million deal with $10 million guaranteed.
Current status: Cut to avoid a $6.4 million base salary in his final year.
Overall: They locked up a physical guy who helped anchor the line before he broke down.

WR Nate Washington: A six-year, $26.8 million deal with $9 million guaranteed.
Current status: About to play out the final season of that six-year, free-agent deal, something that’s basically unheard of in today’s NFL.
Overall: Matured in time and has been a steady player.

LB Will Witherspoon: A three-year, $11 million deal with $5 guaranteed.
Current status: With the St. Louis Rams.
Overall: A decent veteran who played OK and didn’t cost a great deal.

QB Matt Hasselbeck: A three-year, $21 million deal and a $6 million signing bonus.
Current status: With the Indianapolis Colts.
Overall: Did a lot for the locker-room tone and played solidly in leading the Titans to a 9-7 record in his first year. Backed up Jake Locker and played some in his second season. Released before his third season.

TE Daniel Graham: A three-year, $8.25 million deal with a $2 million signing bonus.
Current status: Out of the league.
Overall: Caught two balls in 14 games and was cut after one season.

DT Shaun Smith: A three-year, $7.25 million deal with a $1.5 million signing bonus.
Current status: Out of the league.
Overall: They wanted to get bigger, but he didn’t really fit their scheme and only played with the Titans for one season.

So ... Reinfeldt didn’t have a particularly distinctive record on contracts. His five No. 1 draft picks -- safety Michael Griffin, Johnson, Kenny Britt, Derrick Morgan and Locker -- haven’t formed a core the way they needed to either.

While coaches often get second chances in the NFL, general managers rarely do. Bud Adams surprised Reinfeldt, and a lot of other people, when he fired him right after the 2012 season. It was really over what Adams viewed as Reinfeldt’s insufficient pursuit of Manning.

I think the Titans are better off with Ruston Webster as GM.

But under his leadership, the Titans have crafted some deals that were also questionable. Michael Griffin got $35 million, Kamerion Wimbley got $35 million and Craig Stevens got $14.4 million.

To Webster's credit, as the market has become more clear for some of those guys, he’s been able to reduce their prices. Stevens just got his 2014 base salary cut from $3.4 million to $1.6 million. And Wimbley just trimmed the base salaries in his final three years by $13.05 million.
As Chris Johnson leaves Nashville and the Tennessee Titans prepare for life without their durable running back, it's time to reconsider the idea that he always ran against loaded fronts.

It's simply overstated.

ESPN Stats & Information tracks runs against a loaded box. That's any run front where the offense has fewer players available to block than the defense has in the front.

Any team or player claiming he faces loaded boxes "all the time" is exaggerating by a great deal, unless by "all the time" he means "less than a quarter of the time."

During Johnson's six seasons with Tennessee, among backs with at least 500 carries, veteran Thomas Jones faced the most staked boxes -- on 23.7 percent of his carries.

Johnson tied for 13th with Marion Barber, Arian Foster and Clinton Portis. Those four faced loaded fronts 17.5 percent of the time since the 2008 season.

Let's dispense with the idea that CJ, or any back, is constantly running into loaded fronts.

Also, the whole benefit of drawing extra defenders into the box is that it helps open things up downfield.

Tennessee was hardly a big downfield passing offense during Johnson's time with the team.

Here is an interesting piece by Matt Bowen of Bleacher Report on what level of threat CJ will provide a new team at this stage.
Reading the coverage of the Tennessee Titans ...

Ken Whisenhunt will have a better chance of what kind of shape his team is in when he sees the players again Tuesday and can see how they recovered from Monday’s work, says Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean.

What does Chris Johnson have left? Chase Stuart of Football Perspective examines.

Jake Locker sees room for improvement, even where things were good, says David Boclair of the Nashville Post.

Video of Locker, Ken Whisenhunt and Wesley Woodyard talking about the start of the offseason program from The Tennessean. Sorry the angle of the Locker video makes you see me.

The Titans waived practice-squad holdover Adewale Ojomo, who was recently arrested and charged for solicitation, says Wyatt.

It’s iPad playbooks for the Titans, who seem excited about the new technology for learning the team’s systems, says Craig Peters of the team’s website.
Shonn Greene came to the Tennessee Titans as the No. 2 back, a guy the team intended to use mostly in short yardage situations and as it needed a more powerful guy.

With Chris Johnson now gone, Greene is at the front of the Titans' running back line, though the Titans are going to make it a committee and the guy with the best chance at the biggest role will probably be a draft pick.

Greene said Friday on SiriusXM NFL Radio he won't be disappointed if he doesn't wind up No. 1 on the depth chart.

"I'm not going to look at who's starting, I'm not getting this time, that time. That's for the coaches to figure out. As for the players, we've got to do what they say and when we're called upon, do our jobs…"

"Nowadays it's not just one back getting the job done, it's done by committee. I take that as a good thing, because it keeps guys fresh, it keeps guys healthy, no one takes a beating like you once did when you had one back, when you used a [work]horse back. So I welcome all those guys on the roster to come help the team out so we can get where we need to be."

As I was around him some last year, Greene stuck me as an especially mild-mannered back. A lot of running backs show at least a hint of an I-need-the-ball attitude, and selfishness in terms of wanting carries isn't automatically a bad thing.

He's doesn't fit that mold, which will help make life easier for that draft pick and for Dexter McCluster.

Greene suffered a knee injury last season in the opener, needed surgery and missed five games. He never really got on track with 77 carries for 295 yards for a 3.8 yard average and four touchdowns.

The Titans expect much more from him in his second go-round.
Some key numbers from ESPN Stats and Info on Chris Johnson, who was released by the Titans on Friday:

Four-digits: Johnson's current streak of six straight 1,000-yard seasons is the longest active streak in the NFL. No one else has a current streak longer than three years. Frank Gore and Marshawn Lynch have done it the last three seasons.

Two thousand: Johnson is one of seven players in NFL history to rush for 2,000 yards in a season. The list: Eric Dickerson, 2,150 yards in 1984; Adrian Peterson, 2,097 in 2012; Jamal Lewis, 2,066 in 2003; Sanders, 2,053 in 1997; Terrell Davis, 2,008 in 1998; Johnson, 2,006 in 2009; O.J. Simpson, 2,003 in 1973 (14 games).

Bell cow: Since 2008, Johnson had 69 percent of the Titans' rushing yards. That's the highest percentage of his team's rushing yards of any player in the league. Peterson had 66 percent for the Vikings, Matt Forte had 63 percent for the Bears, Maurice Jones-Drew had 59 percent for the Jaguars and Steven Jackson had 58 percent for the Rams.

Losses and no gains: Johnson has been tackled for a loss or no gain on 410 rushes since he entered the NFL in 2008, the most during that time

YAC: Since 2009, only Thomas Jones and LaDainian Tomlinson -- who were both more than 30 years old during the stretch -- averaged fewer yards after contact than Johnson.

The list: Jones, 1.23; Tomlinson, 1.42; Johnson, 1.45; Ray Rice, 1.47. (Minimum 500 rushes.)

YBC: While Chris Johnson has struggled with yards after contact in the last five seasons, he has the fifth-most yards before contact since 2009. That list: Jamaal Charles, 3.76; C.J. Spiller, 3.35; Reggie Bush, 3.12; LeSean McCoy, 3.12; Johnson, 3.07. (Minimum 500 rushes.)

Runs of 20 yards or more: Johnson had progressively fewer 20-yard rushes in each season since his huge 2009 campaign: 22 in 2009, 13 in 2010, 11 in 2011, eight in 2012, five in 2013.

Against loaded boxes: Johnson runs versus loaded boxes year-by-year: 59 (4.56 average), 68 (5.44), 51 (4.31), 36 (3.42), 46 (7.28), 44 (3.91). That's 44 of 279 in 2013 or 16 percent.
Tennessee Titans general manager Ruston Webster visited with me, Chad Withrow and Jonathan Hutton on The Midday 180 this afternoon to talk about the team's decision to cut ties with Chris Johnson.

"There is some sense of relief that we're through it and we're moving forward and I am sure it's the same for him," he said.

He also said the team never got to the point where it offered a reduced deal.

I think it's safe to presume that between agent Joel Segal's tone in a meeting at the combine and Johnson's comments to Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean about not taking a pay cut, the Titans figured it would have been fruitless. And I'm not sure they wanted him at even a reduced price.

"I don't know that we ever got into solid numbers on those things," Webster said.

Other topics:

On the timing: The Titans had to do their due diligence. Ultimately, they weren't able to make a trade.

"In the end I had told Chris and Joel that once we exhausted those options that we would move on and that's what we did," he said.

On evolving running back economics: "For whatever reason, the way offenses are going right now, the use of the multi-runner backfield as opposed to just having the one guy has changed the economics of things. And I think you can even look to the draft and see what's happened to the running back position in the draft. Very few, if any, will go in the first round this year. So that has changed.

"The league is a little different now in how they value the position. So I think those running backs that signed the big contracts are a little bit the victims of the circumstances at this day and time."

Will the Titans definitely be drafting a running back: "We will definitely look at that position in the draft."

On the interest level: Webster said there were points in time during the process where he thought the team had a chance to get a deal done that then didn't work out.

"There was a market and there were times I felt good about it," he said.

Johnson as a player now: "I think Chris still has a lot left … . I think Chris will have a some good years left in him.

On starting the offseason program Monday without Johnson: "I think it's important for the head coach to start new and be able to move forward. Saying that if we'd have felt that keeping him was the best thing for the franchise, we would have done it. I think it's good for Whiz to be able to start anew with everybody on board and heading the same direction."

On Johnson's health: Webster said Johnson passed his physical Friday and would have been able to participate in organized team activities.

On what they will look to bring in to go with Shonn Greene and Dexter McCluster: "I think moving forward we're going to look for another back with just some all-around ability, with size and speed, some explosiveness and possibly one that could stay on the field all three downs.

On how the draft class rates: "I think it's good. I don't think there is necessarily that one, the Adrian Peterson of the group that's going to go in the top 10. But there's a lot of depth there, from probably the late first to the fifth."

On confidence he can find a back if they wait until the fourth or fifth round: "I am, yep."

Meanwhile, Johnson issued a statement that he also tweeted:

"I'd like to thank all of my teammates, the fans, the staff and the coaches who have supported me throughout my journey with the Titans. I have grown so much as an individual and as teammate over the past few years, and I am excited about the opportunity to bring my experience and talents to a new organization. I'm looking forward to the next chapter and can't wait to contribute to my new team."
For his first three years in the NFL, Chris Johnson was one of the most underpaid backs in the NFL. He made about $7.7 million.

For the last three years, he's been more than fairly compensated -- collecting $34 million.

So to those who think life is unfair for Johnson right now, I'd say it's as easy to look at him as fortunate as well as unfortunate.

If Johnson was drafted years earlier, he would have been very well paid. But if he was in the 2014 draft, he would never line up for anything close to $41.7 million in his career.

His career has straddled a seismic shift in the economics for running backs.

ESPN.com's Ashley Fox runs through the harsh realities of that.

It's tough timing for CJ now. He'll likely get a reduced role and a contract with an annual value of $4 million or less. But at least he had six years of the old economics.

Going forward, here's a look at the Titans and running back money:

Titans' running back base-salary cash costs in 2014: Shonn Greene $2.3M, Dexter McCluster $1M, Jackie Battle $855k, draft pick $435k. Total $4.589M.

Titans' running back salary-cap costs in 2014: Greene $3.23M, McCluster $4M, Battle $570k, draft pick $435k + prorated piece of bonus. Total $8.235M + prorated bonus for the rookie.
The Titans held on to Chris Johnson until Friday because they felt they had potential to trade him.

At least two teams gave Tennessee a real sense that a deal could be reached. ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter reported four teams were interested, but a source tells me Miami and Buffalo were the teams that came closest to making a move.

Johnson would have had to reduce his contract, which called for base salaries of $8 million, $8 million and $7 million.

I can't envision Johnson wanting to go to Buffalo. Choosing to hit the open market instead of facilitating a trade there would be an understandable move.

The Dolphins and Miami might be attractive. But if he didn't like the Titans' offensive line in transition, the shakeup the Dolphins have undergone hardly suggests a line that will have jelled by opening day.
He ran for 2,006 yards in 2009, which is an incredibly difficult feat.

Chris Johnson worked awfully hard to accomplish that.

But he also allowed it to sort of swallow him up. In many ways, his identity is CJ2K.

[+] EnlargeJohnson
Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY SportsChris Johnson had the worst per-carry average (3.9 yards) of his career in 2013.
Two thousand yards became something he couldn’t help but bask in well after the 2009 season was over. He set it as a goal, time and time again. He deemed himself not just as a running back but a playmaker, and used that to get a giant contract.

The trouble was, those monster plays became less and less frequent.

The blocking got worse and the play calling became more questionable, and Johnson was quick to point that out and slow -- and by slow, I mean we're still waiting -- to say "my bad" and take any blame himself.

When his coaches early last season said he was taking plays designed to go outside and turning them inside, he basically denied it.

On Nov. 14, 2013, he scored a chugging, twisting 7-yard touchdown in a loss to the Colts at LP Field.

It ranked as an uncommon effort, and when he was asked about it after the game he said he'd had few chances to make such a play over the course of the season.

There was his failure, in my eyes.

Through that game, he had 168 carries. He saw few chances at high-effort, big-play runs in 168 carries? He finished the season with 279 carries and he had a very low percentage of those kinds of runs.

I think he came to believe things were going to be easier than they were in reality. He talked of 2,000 yards and his TV race against a cheetah and that speed, that speed, that speed.

Paired with his occasional criticism of his blocking and the offense's play calling, it hardly smacked of accountability.

Somewhere along the way, he could have said, he should have said, "There are multiple issues with the run game, but I'm the guy with the ball in my hands and I have to figure out how to do more while the other people involved work on their elements."

That he was incapable or unwilling to see things that way keyed his downfall with the Titans. Well, that and a combination of a 3.9-yard average and that scheduled $8 million salary.

The Tennessee Titans open their offseason program on Monday, and we’ve discussed how and why that should amount to a deadline for the Titans to act with regard to Chris Johnson.

The running back is scheduled to make $8 million this season, he’s coming off a career-low 3.9 yards per carry and since the season ended and the team replaced coach Mike Munchak with Ken Whisenhunt, it has offered no indication Johnson will be part of things going forward.

On SiriusXM NFL Radio on Wednesday, Johnson's agent, Joel Segal, said he spoke to the Titans.

“I think it’s a matter of time before Chris won’t be with the Titans, I just don’t know when,” he said.

I don't rate that as giant news. But he did say publicly what we've been saying for quite some time, so it qualifies as noteworthy.

The Titans have held out for about as long as they can to try to get something in a trade, a move that would have had to come with a reduced contract.

Johnson is about to be on the market. Segal has found new homes for Michael Vick and DeSean Jackson, and will soon be taking calls on another high-profile client.

It’s time for the Titans to make the move. Monday is a milestone, as Whisenhunt and his staff get to see their players for the first time.

It needs to be about who’s in line to be part of the 2014 Titans, not about who’s not.