The score suggests it was a throwback game.
Anyone in attendance at LP Field or anyone who watched the national television broadcast of the Tennessee Titans’ 14-10 victory over the New York Jets on Dec. 17 probably felt it was best that the game film simply was thrown away.
Days after the massacre of young school children at Newtown, Conn., the contest hardly provided the distraction that much of the nation probably hoped. Even ESPN’s Monday Night Football broadcast tandem of Mike Tirico and John Gruden reached a point where they no longer could hide their contempt at having to call such a sub-par display of professional football.
A little more than three months and one free agent signing later, the contest that once seemed best left in the past now offers what Titans general manager Ruston Webster, coach Mike Munchak and their staffs hope is a glimpse into their offensive future.
Among the few productive and noteworthy players that night were running backs Chris Johnson and Shonn Greene, now teammates in Tennessee. Days after the Super Bowl, the Titans made the decision to keep Johnson, which guaranteed him $9 million of his $10 million 2013 salary. Last week, Greene signed a three-year, $10 million contract the day his deal with the Jets expired.
“We were looking for a big back to complement [Johnson], and [Greene] is the back that we targeted,” Webster said. “He played well against us on Monday Night Football.”
“Well,” of course, is relative in what was the lowest-scoring Titans’ game of the season and the one that officially ended the Jets’ playoff hopes.
Each offense lacked something that night but the game was, however, illuminating in terms of the way the Titans hope Johnson and Greene can work together. The former stole the show with the latest — and longest — highlight run of his career. The former was effective in a completely different manner. His ability to get between the tackles and gain meaningful yards got his team off to a good start.
Whether it works or not remains to be seen, but the partnership already is something of a departure for the franchise that has featured the running game for the vast majority of seasons since it relocated from Houston. Not since 2004, when they signed Antowain Smith, have the Titans relied on a free agent running back as a significant piece of their offense.
They did have a couple years with Travis Henry, who was acquired in a trade, but mostly they have relied on draft picks, as was the case when Johnson and LenDale White worked in tandem. In recent years, Javon Ringer and Jamie Harper, the last two running backs drafted, have failed to add any sort of consistent production.
“The thinking here more is that the type of back we wanted was a guy like Shonn that has been in a system similar where he is used to the two backs carrying the ball and the fact that there may be times when he gets more opportunities one week than the next,” Munchak said. “CJ is obviously our main back and will be and continue to be, just like when CJ came in with LenDale.”
Johnson stole the show when he set a franchise record with a 94-yard touchdown run in the second quarter. On second-and-9 from the Tennessee 6, he cut off a block by center Kyle DeVan, got into the open field and ran untouched to the end zone.
It was a vintage moment for a player who set — and still holds — the NFL scouting combine record for the fastest 40-yard dash time and who twice has had as many touchdown runs of 80 yards or more in a single season (three) as any other player has had in a career. The moment was enhanced for much of the nation by the fact that he had written the names of the Newtown victims on his shoes as a tribute.
“It’s a situation that just I feel like once I get through the line or whatever, I don’t feel like I can get caught,” Johnson said that night. “It’s a situation where a lot of teams like to play a lot of guys in the box for me. Anytime you do that, you are not going to have a lot of good runs like that, but you’ve got to take advantage when they slip. When they slip, you’ve just got to make them pay for it.”
There were, in fact, plenty of times in that contest when the Jets kept him hemmed in. Nine of his 21 carries went for one yard or less, three of which lost yards including one that went 10 yards backward on a first-quarter, third-down play. He finished with 122 rushing yards — 28 of them on 20 attempts and 94 on that one spectacular, emotional run.
Ten of his rushes were on first down but none gained more than three yards. In fact, the play that preceded his record-setting dash was a one-yard gain on first down.
“I think he is a phenomenal player,” Greene said. “He is very explosive. He is very talented. He can takeoff whenever.
“I think just with our different styles, we can keep defenses on their toes. You have to prepare for him with his speed and getting to the outside and then coming with me with the power and the downhill stuff.”
Greene was the Jets’ best offensive player that night with 68 rushing yards on 13 carries, the bulk of them on first down. In stark contrast to Johnson’s performance, five of his nine first-down attempts gained four yards or more and one went for fewer than three yards.
New York took an early 3-0 lead with a 13-play, 39-yard drive that included three Greene rushes on first downs for six, three and three yards, respectively. That drive included three of the Jets’ five third-down conversions in contest. The Titans had moved the chains on third down just twice.
“Obviously, he’s good in short-yard, goal-line situations, but we feel he’s a back that’s good in all three downs,” Munchak said. “I love the way he runs. It’s downhill. … That’s the thing that was missing in our offense, so we felt that was a great addition.”