Everyone — teammates, coaches, management, fans — is eager to see Chris Johnson back with the Tennessee Titans.
And why not? He’s the most exciting offensive player in the game, a real blink-and-you-miss-it kind of game-changer.
Yet in the debate generated by his absence from all workouts and related team activities last month, most have overlooked one important point: We’ve already seen the best CJ has to offer. There’s nothing to suggest he’s ever going to do any better or even be as productive as he was a year ago.
Johnson, who gained 2,006 yards, was just the sixth to do it and the first since Jamal Lewis in 2003.
None of the other five who got there — O.J. Simpson, Eric Dickerson, Barry Sanders, Terrell Davis, and Lewis — ever did so again. Most, in fact, never were anywhere near as good in the seasons that followed.
Dickerson provides the best case study. He, like Johnson, topped 2,000 in his second season, and his breakaway speed and running style were similar to Johnson’s.
He played nine more seasons in the NFL after setting the single-season record of 2,105 in 1984. He topped 1,000 in just five of them and led the league in rushing only twice.
Most telling was his yards-per-carry average, which was a hefty 5.6 in his record-setting effort. In the years that followed, he never did better than 4.6 yards per carry for a single season, and from 1987 through 1991, that figure dropped annually.
Johnson averaged — you guessed it — 5.6 yards per carry last season. Anyone want to wager on how far he will slip in 2010?
Lewis reached the magical number in his third season and averaged 5.3 per carry. In the six years that followed, he topped 1,000 four times but never exceeded 4.4 yards per attempt.
Sanders averaged 6.1 when he topped 2,000 (1997), then dipped to 4.3 the following campaign and promptly retired. Terrell Davis played three more years after he eclipsed 2,000 with a 5.1-yard average but never picked up more than 4.2 yards a pop in any of them.
Simpson was the first to get to 2,000. He did so in 1973 and averaged 6 yards per carry when he did. He played six more seasons and twice averaged at least 5 yards (that number was 4.2 in 1974), but the final three years were utterly forgettable.
In other words, anyone looking for a repeat performance from Johnson this fall — or any of the ones that follow — likely will be disappointed.
True, the argument can be made that training techniques have evolved, and the game has changed, so there is reason to
believe that he can buck the trend.
But Johnson has chosen not to avail himself fully of the advancements made because he has elected to stay away from the team, at least for a time. He instead has adopted a show-me-the-money attitude.
And now everyone sits around and waits to see who will blink first — the team or the player. It’s a far cry from the eye-popping excitement Johnson provided in the latter months of 2009. CJ has decided to take this opportunity to look out for No. 1, which makes sense given that his value is likely never to be higher than it is right now. He might want to look down, though, because there’s every reason to believe that’s where he’s headed — statistically speaking, that is.