Wednesday, September 5, 2007
Training Camp Notebook: Play Count for Johnson?
By Tristan H. Cockcroft
In baseball, pitchers are often kept on pitch counts to maintain their workloads. Fantasy football fans, get ready for the "play count."
Chiefs coach Herm Edwards said during Wednesday's news conference that star running back Larry Johnson will be on "a little bit of a leash" in Week 1. The decision comes on the heels of Johnson's record-setting 416 carries last season, then his lengthy holdout that concluded Aug. 21. With Johnson coming off a season in which he had such a hefty workload, then a preseason in which he had only three carries in one game appearance, Edwards joked Wednesday that he'd institute a "play count" for his starting running back.
"When we're home I've got an idea that I'm going to make these little cards where people -- like they do in baseball -- can actually mark it," Edwards said in a recent press conference. "I'm going to try to patent that."
Granted, the idea of limiting Johnson's touches is nothing new. Edwards has pledged in the past to limit Johnson's workload -- last season, for instance -- then handed his star player the ball what some might consider an unthinkable number of times. But with the team's struggles in the injury department in 2006, particularly the loss of quarterback Trent Green, Edwards readily admits working Johnson hard was a decision that made sense.
"When I took this job I didn't anticipate him carrying the ball that much," said Edwards. "But injuries and losing the quarterback ... the last time I checked you give the ball to your best player. He was our best player last year."
Count on Johnson being the Chiefs' best player this year, too, especially with Damon Huard under center. Not that Huard is a bad player -- he averaged 221.6 passing yards with 10 TDs and one interception as a starter from Weeks 4-10 last year -- but he's hardly the kind of game-changing force Johnson is. The Chiefs' best chance at success in 2007 sits atop the running back depth chart, even if Johnson doesn't look the part in Week 1.
Edwards didn't detail any specifics of his possible "play count," so Johnson's workload might very well come down to how he feels during the team's first game. With a great matchup against a soft Texans defense kicking off his season, Johnson should be feeling fine, meaning his fantasy owners shouldn't fret a bit. Michael Bennett could be worked in more often than normal -- perhaps one carry per two for Johnson -- but even with only 15 touches, Johnson should tear up the Texans for a healthy yardage total. Remember, that's only a guesstimate; Edwards offered no specific target numbers for Johnson in Week 1.
From there, don't be surprised if Johnson is back to full speed in the Week 3 or 4 range, if not sooner. That means back to a workload level somewhere between 2006's average of 26 carries a game and 2005's 21 per, plenty to rival the top fantasy players in the game.
Other News and Notes
• With only four days to go until their regular-season opener, the Raiders still have yet to come to terms with No. 1 overall pick JaMarcus Russell, putting him in jeopardy of being the first such draft selection to remain unsigned by a season opener since Bo Jackson failed to sign with the Buccaneers in 1986. Of course, the difference there was Jackson had a baseball career to fall back upon. Russell has now missed 40 days of practice, and coach Lane Kiffin told The San Francisco Chronicle there is "nothing" new to report. It's growing increasingly possible Russell won't sign at all, and even if he does during the season, any further delay hurts his prospects at taking the field this season, impacting any chance he'd have at fantasy value ... and that includes a possible 2008 breakout.
• Speaking of Raiders quarterbacks, no official announcement has been made, but if you believe Kiffin's other remarks in the Chronicle, body language should tell you your Week 1 starter. After being informed by Kiffin the starting assignment, Daunte Culpepper was seen leaving the practice field with a broad smile, while Josh McCown was full of "sighs and frowns" in the locker room. Sure, either player could be practicing his acting skills -- perhaps in hopes of an offseason movie deal? -- but all signs seem to point to Culpepper getting the ball in Week 1 against the Lions. It's not smart to gamble on him in fantasy leagues despite a soft matchup, but that's a key game in which he'll need to succeed to maintain the starting role. Keep tabs on his performance.
• Rams receiver Drew Bennett missed Tuesday's practice with a strained quadriceps, but all indications are that he'll suit up for the team's Week 1 game against the Panthers. Coach Scott Linehan also noted that Torry Holt, still working his way back to full health coming off knee surgery, "looked 100 percent" on Tuesday. Holt should be a safe play for the season opener; Bennett is more of a No. 3/4 fantasy wide receiver consideration.
• 49ers receiver Darrell Jackson (hamstring) missed Tuesday's practice to rest, but is expected to play Week 1 against the Cardinals. That's a matchup of significance; the veteran slashed the Cardinals' secondary up for 187 yards and two scores in two games last season. Since it's a Monday night game, any setback with Jackson should be noted since it'll be too late in the week for a fantasy fall-back, but he appears fine to use for now.
Tristan H. Cockcroft covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.