Now that it’s certain Chris Johnson is staying, the Tennessee Titans need to focus on what it will take to get their record-setting running back going again.
It is not that he needs to get another 2,000 yards rushing. Given that no one in NFL history has hit that mark more than once, it seems unreasonable to expect him to do so.
But it is not too much to ask a three-time Pro Bowler (and one of the highest-paid players at his position) to consistently gain useful yardage on first down, convert in short-yardage situations, and generally just keep the offense moving. In fact, given the team’s commitment to a young, evolving quarterback, it is imperative.
The Titans formally committed to CJ’s presence when he was still on the roster five days after the Super Bowl. At that point, he was guaranteed $9 million of his $10 million salary this season so there no longer was a chance he would be cut.
Now they have to commit to his performance. That means they need to sort out what has gone wrong recently and come up with the necessary adjustments to make it right.
After all, in the most basic sense Johnson is not the problem.
His biggest asset always has been his speed, which allows him to run away from defenders if given just the slightest opportunity. Any questions about whether he had lost a step were answered last season when he doubled his NFL record for touchdown runs of 80 yards or longer with three more.
That’s not to say he has no responsibility for the decline in his performance. He is, however, still a threat every time he touches the ball. So those who work with him must make him more dangerous more often.
It started with the decision to fire Jim Skipper, the running backs coach each of the previous two seasons, and replace him with Sylvester Croom.
Whether or not it was Skipper’s fault, Johnson was neither as patient nor as decisive — an oxymoron to be sure, but true nonetheless —after the start of 2011. Too often he cut back sooner than necessary or stalled in the backfield as he looked for a place to run. Either way, the result was the same — too many carries that lost yards or barely got back to the line of scrimmage.
Croom already has talked about the need for players to do the right things on every single snap rather than just once in a while. Plus, he has a presence that might just allow him to get — and hold — Johnson’s attention more than a lot of others would.
It can’t end there.
The Titans now need to address several positions on the roster. Coach Mike Munchak has suggested the team will look to add at least one offensive lineman early in the draft, and it is important that happens. Plus, another running back would help either to lessen Johnson’s workload or to motivate him — or both.
Let’s face it. There’s a chance Johnson never again will be anything close to the back he was from 2008 through 2010.
It is possible that the money he got from a groundbreaking contract in 2011 has stripped him of his motivation or that the accumulation of punishment he already has absorbed has pushed him past the point of real productivity for an NFL running back.
If there’s any chance he can rebound from the past two seasons, though, the Titans need to do everything — that’s everything — they can to make it happen.
Backs like CJ don’t come along too often, but things can’t go on as they have.