Dancing with the scars: Johnson, Titans keep scuffling

Dan Arkush
Dancing with the scars: Johnson, Titans keep scuffling

It’s hard not to blame Chris Johnson for much of the misfortune the Titans have experienced just over a third of the season on the way to what most daily league observers consider to be a disappointing 2-4 start.

Particularly when the Titans' fifth-year running back chooses to publicly address his team’s early-season turmoil, as was the case shortly after Tennessee’s fourth loss by 20 or more points in Week Five to the upstart Vikings.

“You look at the games and how we're playing, we don't look like a good team. I wouldn't sit here and say we're close,” said Johnson after the Vikings crushed the Titans 30-7. “We need somebody in this locker room to make plays and give us a spark.

“I feel like I've made some plays, but the situation of a spark has got to come from somewhere, and getting a spark that can be big for this team.”

While Johnson has indeed “made some plays” this season — most notably in a 141-yard outing against Houston’s highly regarded defense in Week Four, as well as his most recent outing, a 91-yard effort in the Titans’ badly needed 26-23 upset win over the Steelers — he has failed to come through far more often than not.

In the first three games this season, Johnson had a combined 45 rushing yards. One week after showing signs vs. Houston of being the same player that was considered arguably the most explosive back in the league in his first three seasons (38 total touchdowns, 4.97 yards per carry), Johnson managed only 24 yards on 15 carries vs. Minnesota.

Gaining a mere 3.3 yards per carry with zero rushing TDs in the first six weeks, Johnson had made himself an easy target for gridiron critics coast to coast.   

“He’s a dynamic runner on the perimeter, and you can get away with that in college, where you line up on one side of the hash mark,” ESPN analyst and former Steelers RB Merril Hoge told PFW a few hours before Johnson faced the Steelers last Thursday evening. “But to make it in the NFL, you have to run between the tackles and be effective in the middle of the field. You need real power and strength to survive.”

Since signing a whopping four-year, $53.5 million extension after a lengthy holdout in 2011, the bang Johnson has delivered for the bucks he’s being paid has been relatively minimal, to say the least.

“The worst thing that happened to him was having the big year,” Hoge said of a 2009 campaign in which Johnson galloped for 2,006 yards and scored 16 TDs (14 rushing, two receiving). “He was extremely decisive that year. But in the last two years, I can’t stop counting the number of times he would hit the hole and lose yardage. The holes have been there for him, but he keeps trying to hit the home run.

“I was taught to get those two- and three-yard gains and then focus on the big run. You can’t be consistently effective if you’re trying to hit a home run all the time. There’s always the potential for him to have a big game because he does have real speed and quickness. But he consistently jumps out of holes.

“That’s his biggest problem. He just doesn’t possess enough power.”

There are some daily NFL film watchers who believe the run blocking for Johnson has been a big reason for his ineffectiveness.

“Ahh, I don’t know,” Hoge said. “I’d say 70 percent of the problem is on him and 30 percent on the offensive line.

“He needs to just hit it (the hole)!”

A personnel executive hinted at another factor that could be weighing heavily on Johnson.

“The other thing that no one is talking about — their (the Titans’) struggles show you how good Mike Heimerdinger was,” the GM said of the Titans’ former offensive coordinator who died Sept. 30, 2011, at the age of 58 after a one-year battle with a rare form of cancer. “He built the offense around Chris Johnson. He was Mike Shanahan’s roommate at Eastern (Illinois). He knew how the stretch worked, and they ran it well. Look at the trajectory of Chris Johnson’s career since (Heimerdinger) passed — that should tell you something. Is it all on the coaching? No. But it’s a part of it — no doubt.”

All that said, Johnson has been only part of the problem so far this season in Tennessee, albeit a big part.

“Let’s be honest — they have the worst owner in the league,” the personnel executive said of Titans owner Bud Adams. “His quarterback interference the last eight years has killed that team. He made them take Vince Young, and his courtship of Peyton Manning paralyzed the front office.

“There were some impact players on the market that would have helped them a lot in free agency — but when the owner gets involved, what are you supposed to do? It had a domino effect.

“Bud Adams has no one to blame but himself for where they are right now.”

The defense under the direction of Jerry Gray also has been under deserved fire after allowing a league-worst 204 points and opposing QBs to complete 71.9 percent of their passes through six weeks.

“One of the biggest problems I have seen — I think they have lost their edge on defense,” the personnel executive told PFW. “(CB) Cortland Finnegan (who signed with the Rams as a free agent) was part of the core group. (FS) Chris Hope, (DE) Jason Jones. You don’t replace that type of production easily. It wasn’t just the plays they made — they brought an attitude and identity to the defense. They didn’t back down to anyone. It’s not there anymore.

“To me, it looks like Jerry Gray has his eyes set on the next job. He got a few sniffs on the head-coaching circuit last year, and I think it has affected his approach. He was thoroughly outcoached by New England (in a 34-13 Week One loss).”

But after rising up on both sides of the ball against Pittsburgh on a national stage, the Titans are far from being dead in the water in an AFC South Division that, aside from the Texans, hasn’t shown a lot of life this season.

“They have enough talent to compete,” one league talent evaluator said of a Titans team that finished 9-7 and barely missed a wild-card berth on a tiebreaker last season in the first year under head coach Mike Munchak.

A much easier schedule moving forward could help. The Titans will play only two teams with winning records down the stretch (Chicago and Houston, both at home).

Before the Steelers game, Munchak said the Titans would not make wholesale changes just for the sake of change. But he said evaluations are ongoing.

“We always do that,” Munchak said. “That's something that is healthy for any football team to be doing, even when we’re winning. Last year, when we were 3-1, we had the same type of meetings. There are always different ways to do things, and that includes players’ opinions.”

The opinions as to who should be the starting QB between second-year pro Jake Locker and seasoned veteran Matt Hasselbeck are varied.

Locker, who has been on the sideline since dislocating his left (non-throwing) shoulder Sept. 30, remains a work in progress. Hasselbeck, meanwhile, is coming off a solid effort (290 passing yards) against Pittsburgh.

“I had a lot of concerns about Jake Locker coming out of college,” the personnel executive told PFW. “I loved the person and the competitor. I didn’t think he had the mind for the game or the passing instincts. He is still not ready. It’s clear they want him to be — they handed him the job — but I would let him get fully healthy and let (Matt) Hasselbeck continue playing as long as possible, if they want to win now.

“The problem is, Locker needs those reps to develop.”