The weekend left Chris Johnson with some numbers to ponder.
First came 120 and 50 — the particulars of the new contract signed by Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald. The eight-year package for the 27-year-old had a potential value of $120 million with $50 million guaranteed, according to multiple reports.
Johnson, the Tennessee Titans running back, wants to be paid as one of the top offensive players in the NFL and thus far has stayed away from training camp, which ends Tuesday, in an effort to make the team renegotiate his current deal.
Then came the 198. That was the number of rushing yards the Titans managed without Johnson and top backup Javon Ringer (hip injury) in Saturday’s 17-16 preseason defeat to the St. Louis Rams.
So with the start of the regular season now three weeks away, Johnson either has a bigger contract number in mind than ever, or he better understands the opportunity that awaits him once he finally rejoins the team.
“I think it’s encouraging for him to see we’re going to do some great things in the run game this year and we want him to be a big part of that,” coach Mike Munchak said Sunday. “We have guys blocking. We have the tight ends, the line, the receivers — they’re all in on this thing.
“It’s probably more exciting for him to want to be here and to have a chance to be a part of something that’s even better than he’s been a part of before. So I think it’s hopefully encouraging for Chris to want to be here.”
In two preseason games thus far, the Titans have rushed for 294 yards and two touchdowns. Two running backs, rookie Jamie Harper and second-year player Stafon Johnson, each have averaged better than five yards per carry.
Harper’s 46-yard, first-quarter run against the Rams currently ranks as the longest play of the preseason. The fourth-round draft pick out of Clemson had 11 rushes for 83 yards and the Titans’ only touchdown against the Rams.
More than half (113) of Tennessee’s rushing yards against St. Louis came in the first half, of which the starters played the vast majority.
“I think we showed everyone what our mentality is going to be here,” Munchak said. “Like it or not, it’s going to be control the line of scrimmage and making plays with what we can do up front. … [Saturday] night was a great opportunity and we had some big, old holes and those guys came through. But I could easily be standing here and CJ would have scored on three of those.
“… We want him here. We know we need him to be a part of this thing for us to reach our goals.”
Titans officials have said publicly they are willing to make Johnson the highest paid running back in NFL history but they also have held to their stance that the 25-year-old must be in camp before they would renegotiate his current deal, which has two remaining years.
Johnson is a three-time Pro Bowler who has averaged better than 1,500 rushing yards per season and who set the NFL record of 2,509 yards from scrimmage in 2009, when he was named the league Offensive Player of the Year.
“We just want him in here so [offensive coordinator] Chris Palmer can get used to how to use him,” Munchak said. “[Palmer] has never worked with him. So that’s the hard part. It’s harder — the longer it goes — to go into a game week and go, ‘OK, here’s how we’re going to use him.’ I think [Palmer] has to figure out that too by having him here.”
Munchak dismissed any notion that the team’s ability to run the ball in the first two preseason games provides an opportunity for the team to trade Johnson and proceed with the players currently in camp.
“It’s not just the offensive line and the backs,” Munchak said. “Heck, the receivers blocked well. There were some big holes there and those guys did a great job down the field. I think a lot of people take pride in that, especially when we work on it so much in practice. Now they go to the game and go, ‘Wow, this stuff works.’
“Having CJ back, which we want, will just make that even easier.”