It was a month-and-a-half into the season before the Tennessee Titans began to score rushing touchdowns.
Once they did, though, a common theme quickly emerged.
“Following behind our fullback, who made everything easier — he got in there and pretty much opened everything up — it was a walk-in touchdown,” Jamie Harper said of his one-yard run against the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Titans’ first rushing touchdown of the season.
“As soon as I saw Quinn Johnson hit the guy and I came through the line, I knew I was gone, because I really didn’t see anybody,” Chris Johnson said of his 83-yard run 10 days later at Buffalo.
Quinn Johnson is that fullback, which means he is the one who blasted open those holes and allowed others to get to the end zone, both from near and far.
If all goes well, as in those instances, his back is the last thing a ball carrier sees before he emerges into open field. There are no statistics to document when he performs his role as designed, and often the only recognition he gets comes from his teammates, as was the case with Harper and Chris Johnson.
“That’s my job: to make it easy for the running back, to help get the running game going,” Quinn Johnson said. “That’s about as good as it gets right there.”
Fullback is something of a lost art in the NFL. As more teams feature three- and four-wide receiver sets or work to take advantage of a growing number of hyper-athletic tight ends, the need for a bruising lead blocker steadily has decreased.
In the past four years only three players have been drafted as fullbacks and none before the seventh round. Even Johnson, who is 6-foot-2, 260 pounds, was listed as a running back when the Green Bay Packers took him in the fifth round in 2009. Never mind that he carried the ball exactly 16 times during his four-year career at LSU, or that observers considered him that year’s third-best fullback prospect.
In his first three NFL seasons he averaged just eight appearances, or half a season’s worth of games. Thus far in 2012, though, he has been on the field some, if not always often, in every contest to this point.
In 31 career games he never has taken a handoff.
“I think it’s an important piece of the puzzle,” quarterback Matt Hasselbeck said. “Obviously, on all of our two-back runs, if he doesn’t do his job, the play has no chance for success. … He’s been consistent. He’s caught some balls for us both last year and this year.
“Honestly, we probably don’t use him enough. He’s got some skills. He’s got some tools.”
Through the first five weeks of the season, when the Titans did not have a single rushing touchdown and their running game ranked among the league’s worst, Johnson was on the field for a total of 43 snaps. The next two weeks, in victories over the Steelers and Bills, he was on the field for 47 plays.
There is a certain chicken-and-egg element to those numbers. Coaches contend that the score, which often got out of hand quickly in the first five weeks, mandated that they abandon the run and throw the ball much more often.
While his presence on the field does not guarantee success, therefore, it seems clear that when things are going well, and he gets more opportunities, he adds something to the attack.
“When you’re taking guys on it’s like a train crash,” tight end Craig Stevens said. “You’re smashing guys. It’s not easy. It’s really difficult, but he’s doing a great job, and we’re lucky to have him. A humble guy. Just kind of a quiet guy but does his job.”
Johnson says he was as young as 6 or 7 when he first played the position. With the exception of one season at West St. John High School (La.) when he rushed for 11 touchdowns and more than 800 yards, he has done the dirty work pretty much his entire football life.
At LSU, he helped a different player rush for more than 1,100 yards in back-to-back seasons, something that had never happened at the school. In his first NFL playoff game, a 2010 wild card contest with the Packers, he helped Green Bay’s James Starks set a single-game, postseason rookie rushing record of 123 yards.
“I’ve learned to love it,” he said. “I enjoy doing what I do.”
Johnson first came to the Titans in a trade at the start of the 2011 regular season. He stayed on the roster for four weeks while Ahmard Hall served a suspension and then was released. Denver claimed him off waivers, but he never played in more than two months there. When the Broncos released him, Tennessee claimed him again.
This summer, therefore, was the first time he went through training camp or any sort of real preparation with the Titans.
“I definitely think that it helps, because I get to know how the guys, individually, how they like to run, what they’re looking for, those things,” he said. “It definitely helps me out in how I block for each one.
“I can’t really explain it. I just know who’s behind me and how to block for them. I pretty much know at what point they’ll be right behind me and at which point they’ll be passing me. So I know how long I have to hold the block and those types of things.”
Once they do pass him by, they take all the eyes in the stands and all notice from the media with them. All there is for him is to go back and do it again and know that his teammates appreciate what he does, even if fans typically look elsewhere, and more and more offensive coordinators look for ways to do without his position.
“He’s a guy that’s never going to get credit, probably never will get a game ball, will never be the AFC player of the week or whatever,” Hasselbeck said. “But he’s got just as much to do with our success as anybody.”