How the mighty have fallen.
In a year that has seen significant injury and underwhelming performance by many so highly ranked on draft boards, it leaves a dynasty coach to wonder just what is the best course of action in the second half of the season. Dig in and ride it out or sell low and retool for 2012? Wemay not be able to answer those questions for you here at DLF, but we can start addressing some of the issues individually. As painful as it might be, let’s talk about my mid-season 2011 L.V.P. award-winner, Chris Johnson.
Through week seven Johnson has amassed 93/268/1 in the run game and 24/143/0 in the passing game. Yes, those numbers are correct! An anemic 2.9 ypca. nearly mid-way through the season. On any level, those numbers are pathetic and nearly beyond explanation from a back, who only two years ago, rushed for over 2,000 yards with a 5.6 ypca. So just what has changed?
Being that I can’t recall such an epic collapse in production and fantasy value in such a short period of time, I’ve been watching a lot of Chris Johnson the past few weeks, both as a Johnson owner and an ambulance chaser. Like driving past the scene an accident, I can’t help but stare when he plays on Sunday. Whether an owner or not, if you are being objective about Johnson’s performance to date, you fully understand that something has most certainly changed, I see it on several levels:
Both in body language and with the football, it’s obvious that C.J. has lost at least some degree of on-field confidence. In previous years, Johnson’s confidence in his skill and speed was evident in every touch as he simply flowed with the offensive line waiting for that moment to take advantage of any crease, regardless of size. In 2011, Johnson is painfully mechanical in his running style. I can’t put my finger on it on every play but it’s obvious that things are most certainly not the same. Some plays he’s very hesitant, others very impatient but on nearly all plays I see no level of confidence as to what a play could become as it develops. Johnson is carrying out each play as if it has broken down in front of him before it has even concluded. Simply put, Johnson is pressing and not running with those same instincts that we’ve seen in the past.
Johnson hasn’t had the opportunity to use that signature burst that we’ve all come to expect. More correctly, Johnson hasn’t taken advantage of situations provided to use that burst. That’s not to say that the same holes that have been present in past years are of the same quality and quantity as this year, but opportunities have been left on the field.
True that Jeff Fisher is gone and new offensive coordinator Chris Palmer simply can’t replace the genius and creativity that embodied the late Mike Heimerdinger. True also is the fact that Matt Hasselbeck brings a different style to the Titan’s offense. All combined and you have a drastically different offensive scheme from that of 2010. Don’t think for a second that this new scheme won’t take its toll on player performance by varying play calling, blocking assignments and that very delicately formed intangible element – chemistry. Heimerdinger was as creative as they come when designing plays to take advantage of a specific playmaker, something Palmer obviously struggles with at this point in his career. But it’s also apparent that the chemistry between Johnson and the coaching staff needs significant work.
Make no mistake that the Titan’s receiving corps. strike no fear in the hearts of defensive secondaries. Without Kenny Britt’s ability to stretch the field and draw double-teams, opposing defenses are free to key on Johnson. Until this changes, I don’t expect a departure from the recent norm. This is on the coaching staff to bring up the passing game and the offensive coordinator to find creative ways to get Johnson the ball in space.
It has been statistically reported that the Titan’s offensive line is not performing nearly as well in 2011 as they had in 2010. In watching most of the Titan’s games this season, I would have to agree. Specifically, stretch plays have been slow to develop and the gaps have not been there nearly as often. “A” and “B” gap runs are seemingly on par with 2010 but has never been the bread and butter of Chris Johnson. In my eyes, it is obvious that even without significant changes along the line, they are not performing as well as they have in the past. This has obviously taken its toll not only Johnson’s numbers but also his mentality.
This is, perhaps, the scariest side of the 2011 version of Chris Johnson I have wintessed. If not for this single issue, I would be more hopeful that the Chris Johnson of old would soon return. Johnson’s attitude has turned from a foundation of “What I can control” to one of “What I can’t control”. There is no greater example of this than his quote of this past week:
Basically, if you are watching the game and you really can’t tell what is going on with the run game then I would say you really don’t know football
I really do want to give him the benefit of the doubt and there are plenty of contributing factors that Johnson himself may not control, but when a player, anyone, refuses to be accountable about those things that they can control, the path that lay ahead is far more arduous. This quote too closely resembles that of Jamarcus Russell for my taste. The line has been drawn in Johnson’s mind and, without change, I’m afraid now that his second half performance is now likely ordained.
Whether C.J. chooses to believe it or not, he himself is missing opportunities that he would have exploited in years past. This hasn’t been more on display than this past week when Johnson took a swing pass out of the backfield to his left, the side in which he cuts more naturally and is more dangerous. Seeing the play unfold, I said “here we go!”. Hasselbeck took a deeper drop and floated a pass to Johnson who swung right-to-left and caught the ball in stride with only a single defensive player moving from his left-to-right. To anyone that has watched Johnson in the past, what comes next is his typical shoulder fake and burst back against the flow into the secondary. This time, however, what followed was an indecisive fake and a half-hearted juke that allowed the defender to swipe Johnson’s lets out from under him. Johnson had gained zero separation from the space given to him and simply didn’t seem to have the desire to make a strong move to get into the secondary.
On a second pass in the form of a shallow crossing route, Johnson received the ball and had multiple opportunities to make a player miss or cut up field but, instead, seemed indecisive as to what he wanted to accomplish, turned one-dimensional and was quickly brought down from behind. A quick cut to the Titan faithful and one fan in particular said it all as he screamed “What are you waiting for?!?!?”. Indeed.
Say what you will about a new offensive coordinator, less creative system, sub-par blocking or a new quarterback, but when the ball is in your hands and the spotlight is on, you MUST be accountable for YOUR performance and those things that you can control. The Johnson of old thrived with the ball in his hands and space on his side. The Johnson of 2011 doesn’t.
The one thing I struggle to question with Johnson is the size of his heart. I’m afraid to. But looking at Johnson on the sidelines, interviews and most importantly, with the ball in his hands and you have to wonder if something more serious has changed. The blackest of holes would be the acknowledgement of what no Chris Johnson owner wants to hear and/or otherwise acknowledge, those three little words that end many NFL careers: He got paid!
I won’t go there.
Where to from here?
Chris Johnson is 26 years old and is not being overworked in 2011. As a coach, you don’t overwork underperformance, it’s the quickest path to the exit. The recipe for a return of the Chris Johnson of old is a complex one and not likely to be figured out in 2011. But that is not to say that the light won’t go on for Johnson or his coaching staff at any given moment.
In redraft leagues, few starting running backs have lower value. I’ve seen straight-up trades involving such names as Jackie Battle, James Starks, Knowshon Moreno and LeGarrette Blount and heard and seen many more discussions on fantasy forums and radio shows. It seems that Chris Johnson owners are finally to the point of cutting bait. As a redraft coach, sign me up! I’ll take Chris Johnson for any of those names without a further thought and I’ll sleep well in doing it.
Redraft leagues are won on the backs of surprising performances. If you are .500 record team needing a boost or a contending team with depth, trading for Chris Johnson is highly advised. I don’t know if he’ll return to form this year, but in a redraft league I’d take that chance if I needed a change in order to make a run.
As a dynasty owner of Johnson, your best bet is to sit on your hands. No doubt you’ll be approached by fellow coaches that wish to lowball you with offers. Nothing has changed about Chris Johnson’s potential. He is not injured, he is not old and he is not incapable. As mention previously, at any given moment, things could turn around and the old CJ2K could emerge. Until that happens, you won’t get any level of value in return. You cannot trade him away here, but you certainly can attempt a buy-low yourself.
The rise and fall of Chris Johnson has been an amazing one. But I caution all owners to realize that there are still many chapters left in the story of Chris Johnson and something tells me that we are in for a thrilling conclusion over the next three to four years.
Where many coaches may see a problem, successful coaches see an opportunity.