A Look at Chris Johnson's Unexpected Resurgence
There was a short time in Chris Johnson's career when he was considered one of the best running backs in football.
Almost weekly, Johnson would go for long touchdown run, bringing Titans fans and fantasy owners to their feet. His breakaway speed was something to marvel. He was one of the most exciting running backs to watch on Sundays.
Johnson’s best season came in 2009 when he rushed for over 2,000 yards to become only one of seven running backs in NFL history to do so. He finished that season with 12 100-yard rushing games and 14 rushing touchdowns. Adding another 503 receiving yards and 2 touchdowns through the air, Johnson was undoubtedly one of the league’s best.
Johnson wasn’t a one season wonder. He rushed for at least 1,200 yards and 9 touchdowns in three straight seasons to start his career.
Of course, things changed.
Unfortunately, Johnson’s ridiculous statistics turned out to be unsustainable. There were rumors it was because Johnson didn’t run hard, or because he had a lack of effort after he secured a big contract. Perhaps it was because he was always looking for that big run for a large chunk of yards instead of taking the three -yard gain the defense allowed.
For whatever reason, Johnson never reached those absurd totals again, with his nickname going from CJ2K to CJ1K, and finally settling on CJ?K.
Despite the questions surrounding him, Johnson rushed for over 1,000 yards in all six seasons with the Titans. Some of these 1,000-yard seasons weren’t pretty, and it took a lot of volume to get there, but by season’s end his totals were usually respectable.
In Johnson’s lone season with the Jets, the volume was missing, as he rushed just 155 times for 663 yards and a touchdown. The Jets released Johnson at the end of last season.
Finding a Taker
After being shot in the shoulder in March, Johnson spent the offseason on the mend and looking for another opportunity in the NFL. For a 30-year-old running back with as much wear as Johnson had, those opportunities can be hard to find.
His chance finally came in the middle of the preseason when he agreed to a one-year deal with the Arizona Cardinals.
Arizona already had promising rookie David Johnson and the talented but often injured Andre Ellington in the backfield. The only chance for Chris Johnson to crack the rotation was to turn the backfield into a three-headed committee or to benefit from an injury to Ellington or David Johnson.
That opportunity didn’t take long, as Ellington was injured in Week 1. Once it was clear Ellington would miss a few games, head coach Bruce Arians wasted no time saying Chris Johnson was the “lead dog” and would get the majority of the carries.
Arians’ words have rang true since Ellington went down and since his return. Chris Johnson has led the backfield in carries every game since Week 1. In the team’s Week 8 win over Cleveland, Johnson carried the ball 30 times to Ellington’s 3. There is no question of Johnson’s role in the Arizona backfield.
He appears to have rejuvenated his career, but is he really back to being one of the best running backs in the league?
Johnson’s early-season statistics have been impressive. Out of 32 running backs with at least 70 rushing attempts, Johnson has the 12th best Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP) per carry.
NEP quantifies how a player performs, indicating how many points above or below expectation-level he adds to his team's expected scoring output. The higher the score, the more positive impact a player has.
Johnson has finished just one season in his career with a positive Rushing NEP per carry. This season would rank as his third highest.
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Aside from his historic 2009 season, Johnson is on pace to have one of the best seasons of his career. Johnson already has four 100-yard rushing days in just eight games.
If his current statistics were projected out to 16 games, he would finish with 1,352 rushing yards and 6 touchdowns. This would be his third highest rushing total of his career.
The one aspect of Johnson’s game that has lacked this season has been his receptions. He has just five catches on the year. Even in his worst season, he still managed 24 receptions with the Jets. Arians’ offense requires quarterback Carson Palmer to use more of a vertical passing attack, which could partially explain fewer looks in the passing game.
As long as Johnson can maintain his grip on the lead back role, which looks to be the case based on his first half work and apparent contract extension talks, he should continue to thrive in Arizona.
The Cardinals have one of the best offenses in the league, which has benefited Johnson. Their offense has the second best Adjusted NEP in the league behind only the New England Patriots.
Perhaps the most impressive metric for the Cardinals is their nERD score of 14.01. This suggests the Cardinals would defeat an average team on a neutral field by two touchdowns. The Cardinals' second half schedule gets more difficult, facing just two teams in their final eight games with losing records. They will be tested coming out of the bye.
Arians seems to trust Johnson to handle the workload given to him. As long as Johnson continues to produce at a respectable pace, there is little reason to believe either David Johnson or Ellington will steal more carries than they already have.
The numbers may slow some as the schedule gets tougher, but he gets enough carries to remain productive.
All signs point to Chris Johnson finishing with one of the better seasons of his career. He hasn’t made the Pro Bowl since 2010, but it appears he may be on his way back.