CORTLAND, N.Y. – Chris Johnson ambled slowly onto the practice field after most of his teammates were already there. He got on the exercise bike and pedaled for a few rotations before stopping and eventually putting his head down onto his crossed arms. He went to stretch with his team, doing twists that weren't all that emphatic and high-knees that weren't at all high. Johnson looked like someone slugging through his last day of camp, rather than his second.
Then the plays from scrimmage started and he was transformed.
There was Johnson, dancing through tacklers and accelerating. There was Johnson, bouncing outside into the open and bursting past chalk line after chalk line. There was Johnson, 20, 30, 40 yards down the field, extending his arms for a deep throw and hauling it in. He was the star of camp on this day, switching suddenly from no-effort to effortless.
Walter Payton would have turned 60 on the day Johnson shined at camp. "Sweetness" can never be replaced in the hearts of most who saw him – "He is my favorite of all time," said Jets running backs coach Anthony Lynn – and he won't be replaced on the field, either. Running backs have faded in their star power and in their production. Johnson is a perfect example of what we had in Payton, and what we may never have again.
Johnson did something Payton never could: run for 2,000 yards in a single season. He did it in 2009, his second year in the league, with the Titans, and the performance was one of the greatest single seasons ever for anyone at his position. "CJ2K" had 2,509 yards from scrimmage, which is still an NFL record. Johnson was one of the few rushers since Payton who looked unstoppable. He could dart like Walter and catch like Walter.
He hasn't been the same since.
There have been inconsistent seasons, disappointing games, a camp holdout in 2011, and no concrete explanation for a drop-off from 5.7 yards per carry in that 2009 season to no better than 4.5 in any season since. Maybe the offensive line wasn't that good in Tennessee. Maybe it was former offensive coordinator Chris Palmer's fault. Maybe Johnson was a track star who couldn't consistently cultivate his magnificent speed. Maybe he just got older.
Or maybe he needed a different setting. That's the hope here, anyway.
This is Johnson's second team, and he's never rushed for fewer than 1,000 yards in a season. There's a better than decent chance he'll take another star turn, with fellow rushers Chris Ivory and Bilal Powell taking some of the punishment of the straight-ahead runs, and Johnson able to catch passes and even line up outside.
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Jeremy Kerley, one of the Jets' receivers, called Johnson "fluent" in his pass-catching ability. "Some guys have it," Kerley said. "Some guys don't." Johnson still has it.
He could be a fantasy owner's dream again; he's only 28 – younger than Adrian Peterson. But he might not be must-see like he was once. The sport has changed.
Lynn explains it like this: Everyone saw what the Panthers did with DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, two horses with fresh legs for the entire game, and realized, "Why would you want to do with one again what you can do with two?" That thought has advantages – especially protecting rushers from the extra collisions that break down a body. But there's also the disadvantage for the rest of us: the single running back as the star of the offense is vanishing from football Sundays. There is still Peterson, Jamaal Charles and LeSean McCoy, but that's about it. So it's not about whether Johnson can run for 2,000 yards again (although that's certainly in doubt after a 1,077-yard season). It's also about, in Lynn's words, "If you get the opportunity to run for 2,000 yards."
That opportunity is rare in the NFL. There were only 13 backs who gained 1,000 yards last season, and only one – McCoy – who gained more than 1,350. We will likely have to settle for flashes of what Sweetness showed in every game. Those are flashes Johnson showed on Payton's birthday. If he strings a bunch of those moments together, the Jets will have something NFL fans have been longing for. Johnson says he feels good, and he certainly looks good, and so there is the chance he could change the Jets' fortunes by himself.
The question for Johnson is the question for football as a whole: Can it really ever be the way it once was?