There's no question that Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson has had a brutal 2011 season after holding out and finally getting the contract he wanted. It was a contract he deserved — $53 million over four years after leading the NFL in rushing over the last three years and gaining over 2,000 yards on the ground in 2009. This season, Johnson has just 2,8 yards per carry, 302 rushing yards total, and only one touchdown. He has played slow out of the backfield, he has played to avoid contact, and he has hamstrung a Titans offense that has been fairly efficient despite him.
As it turns out, the Titans may not have to deal with the aftereffects of Johnson's decline in performance past this season if they choose not to. This according to Jason La Canfora of the NFL Network:
Johnson has $17 million of his total of $30 million guaranteed, which currently is guaranteed for injury only. It's not guaranteed for skill (diminished production). Of that $17 million, $8 million does not convert to skill guarantee until the fifth day of the 2012 waiver period (early March). The remaining $9 million converts on fifth day of the 2013 waiver period.
So the Titans conceivably could release him for decline in skill -- assuming he continues to struggle -- after one season of the long-term extension and not owe him anything more beyond his $13 million in 2011 pay. Of course, it's highly likely the Titans will give Johnson at least another season and pay him $22 million over the first two years of the deal.
So, this could go one of two ways. Tennessee could cut bait after this season if Johnson continues at this level, and the decline in skill provision would allow the franchise to split without repercussions. As La Canfora says, it's unlikely that the Titans would drop Johnson after just the one season on the expectation that he will return to his old form, but if there isn't a serious turnaround this season, they'll have a serious decision to make.
General manager Mike Reinfeldt has long been known as one of the most able salary cap executives in the NFL, and he's not generally bound by sentimentality. Johnson's 2012 salary drops from $8 million drops by $300,000 if he fails to rush for 1,000 yards this season, and that seems to be a distinct possibility at the very least.
More and more, people in the know and fans of the team say that they would like to see more of running back Javon Ringer, a player who does play to contact, is more decisive, and has a more physical style. If Ringer or any other back were to make the need for Johnson a thing of the past, that fat contract of his could get much skinnier in a big hurry.