By Ernie Palladino
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They still need a wide receiver, and heaven know how the quarterback situation between Geno Smith and Michael Vick will turn out. But the Jets did land themselves someone who can help the ground game in Chris Johnson.
In the blink of an eye and a few strokes of a pen on a contract Wednesday, the Jets found themselves a backfield. It could be an exciting one, too, as the former Titans Pro Bowler will team up with Chris Ivory to form what Rex Ryan hopes is a dynamic 1-2 punch. Ivory provides the brawn with his pounding, physical style, while the lightning-like Johnson offers breakaway potential.
On paper, this could become the most exciting Jets backfield since Ryan’s first year, when Thomas Jones led the ground-and-pound to the postseason with 1,402 yards and 14 touchdowns. That’s assuming the Titans let Johnson go prematurely, of course. He’s been a 1,000-yard rusher his whole professional life, but last year he sank to 1,077 and six touchdowns, and a career low 3.9-yard average. Perhaps the Titans knew something the Jets didn’t.
The true story will reveal itself in due time. For now, all is happiness and rainbows in the Jets’ offices. For a team without a quarterback, unless someone really believes Smith is going to turn into a master thrower overnight or that Vick has enough left to lead the Jets anywhere past the first 16 games, and only the rudiments of a receiving group outside of free agent pickup Eric Decker, this was an outstanding acquisition.
Even the price was right — two years, $8 million. If Johnson shows any of his former home run ability, he’ll be worth every cent of his contract and more.
General manager John Idzik isn’t one to take bows, nor should he be. There is still plenty of work to do. The draft is coming up fast, and the Jets have plenty of other concerns. They need offensive linemen, defensive backs, receivers. But at this point, running back is not one of them.
It might actually be fun watching these guys this year. If Johnson runs hard — there were allegations that he let up in Tennessee — the Jets could have a triple-threat backfield that will force a safety closer to the line. Do that, and the passing game opens up. And Johnson can contribute there, too, as he has caught 272 passes in his career, 42 with four TDs last year. Add Decker and Jeremy Kerley to the passing mix, and the paper starts to look awfully solid for an offense sorely in need of a points boost.
It looks even better when one considers that Vick and Smith can both make plays with their legs. Suddenly, the read-option looks better, too. Mind-blowing better.
Perhaps this is getting ahead of reality. It is entirely possible that Johnson’s off-year last year was the beginning of a permanent decline. It is possible that he will never regain his breakaway speed after surgery for the torn meniscus that hindered him the last 13 games of 2013.
But this is a time for excitement, an all-too-rare quality around Jets camp these past few seasons. Unless he’s an outright bust, Johnson’s presence will at least make defensive coordinators around the league study a little harder and gameplan a few more hours.
Ground-and-Pound? Thunder-and-Lightning? Johnson-and-Ivory? It doesn’t matter what you call it. It’s a backfield — a real, live, legitimate, threatening backfield.
Idzik did something right Wednesday. He handed Ryan and Marty Mornhinweg a weapon.
Now he needs to pick up a few more in the draft. For now, though, hope springs eternal. And that hasn’t happened in the Jets’ neck of the woods for a long time.
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