A colossal $53.5M over four years, with $30M guaranteed. That’s what Chris Johnson held out for last summer, not reporting to the Tennessee Titans until September 1, just ten days before opening Sunday.
After three spectacular years as Tennessee’s running back (and one pantheon year in 2009, where he rushed for 2,006 yards), one could argue that Johnson was worth every penny.
Despite regressing in 2010 to 1,364 yards, still good for fourth best in the league, Tennessee was right to lock down their three-time Pro Bowler to such a lucrative deal.
But was Johnson right to hold out for as long as he did?
Tennessee as a team in 2011 fell one game short of the playoffs. As a team, the Titans went 9-7 behind a decent year from Matt Hasselbeck, improved offensive line play (second in sacks allowed), and a defense that bent, but didn’t break, ranking eighth in points allowed.
In the AFC South, Tennessee finished one game behind Houston, with whom they split the season series. Had the Titans beaten them on October 23 (they lost 41-7), they would have won the division. Cincinnati claimed the sixth Wild Card spot at 9-7, so convert any other Tennessee loss into a win, and the Titans get in anyway.
It’s hard to blame a team’s shortcomings solely on one player, but Chris Johnson’s 2011 season was so far below his standards, it makes that argument a smidge easier.
Look at the numbers: a career low 1,047 yards in 16 games started. That’s 65 yards a game, far below the 125 yards a game he banked in 2009, and certainly 65 yards a game wouldn’t have been worth Tennessee opening the vault for Johnson the way they had.
Here’s some more numbers for Johnson to consider: 4.0 yards a carry, 4 rushing touchdowns, 0 receiving touchdowns, 4 games of 100 rushing yards or more.
All of them are career lows.
Tennessee was undefeated in those games where Johnson ran for 100 yards, going 4-0. That means the team, logically, was 5-7 in games where Johnson didn’t hit the 100-yard plateau. In those seven losses, Johnson averaged 35 yards a game, twice rushing for below 20 yards.
Who says one man doesn’t make a team?
If it’s the offensive line, then the same line that kept a twilight-year Matt Hasselbeck upright couldn’t open holes for one of the game’s most dynamic rushers. To that end, coach Mike Munchak (no stranger to the trials and tribulations of offensive linemen) did away with guard Jake Scott, and brought in future Hall-of-Famer Steve Hutchinson to see if that makes a difference.
But at least Munchak and the office are working to make a difference. Johnson’s 2011 output is especially infuriating when you remember he skipped all of camp and preseason, and you then realize that a more focused Johnson could have possibly won two more games on his own, had he truly played like CJ2K.
It’s little wonder why Baltimore and Chicago buckled at the deadline when Ray Rice and Matt Forte were on the verge of holding out. When you have a chance to win now, you don’t take a chance on letting your guy turn into what Johnson turned into last season.
But Johnson’s just 26 years old. He can turn it around this season, and erase the stench of a frustrating year by maximizing this offseason, and help to get Tennessee that playoff bid that probably should have been theirs a year ago.
And let it be a lesson: no one man is better than the sum of the parts, but the absence of that part can diminish the sum entirely.