By Jeff Capellini
Back in 2010, the Jets invested two years in free agent LaDainian Tomlinson, hoping he’d recapture a bit of what made him a surefire Hall of Famer over what ended up being a stellar 11-year career.
It worked to a degree.
In his first season in green and white, at the age of 31 and with a lot to prove coming off his worst season with the San Diego Chargers, Tomlinson put up 1,282 all-purpose yards, 52 receptions and six touchdowns during the regular season. He played bigger in the playoffs, providing workhorse-like running and three touchdowns over the first two games as the Jets advanced to the AFC championship game for the second straight season.
The next season it was apparent that Tomlinson’s best days as a featured back were clearly behind him. He carried the ball just 75 times, but was still used as a receiver out of the backfield, registering 42 catches. The Jets changed philosophy that season, going away from what had worked so well as a run-first operation to a passing attack that Mark Sanchez wasn’t able to master.
Sanchez tossed 26 TDs, but he also turned the ball over at an alarming rate as the Jets, in typical pre-Rex Ryan form, went from 2-0 to 5-3 to 8-5 to.500 and out of the playoffs.
Two years later, the Jets are looking to end a run of three straight seasons without a playoff berth. Their defense figures to once again be stout, but Ryan is likely coaching to save his job because the questions at quarterback just never seem to go away.
But in the event Geno Smith doesn’t take the next step, which popular opinion is suggesting is a 50-50 proposition at best, and Michael Vick doesn’t end up being the greatest backup in NFL history, the Jets should still be contenders for a playoff berth.
Because, like in 2009 and ’10, they should be downright vicious running the football.
And once again a player wearing No. 21 will be required to recapture the form he once showed.
Chris Johnson doesn’t have Tomlinson’s overall body of work, but is faced with the same mandate to re-prove himself. In six full NFL seasons, Johnson has rushed for nearly 8,000 yards. Soon to be 29, he was shown the door in Tennessee, presumably because the Titans felt he could no longer produce as he had before.
I look at Johnson’s pedestrian 1,077 yards and 3.7 per-carry average in 2013 and don’t necessarily see a player on the decline. He got less than 20 carries in 10 of the Titans’ 16 games and that team had to deal with instability at quarterback after Jake Locker went down with a hip injury against the Jets in Week 4 and only played in three more games the rest of the way.
To say opponents didn’t exactly fear backup Ryan Fitzpatrick and instead keyed on stopping the run is probably a very fair statement. Johnson still excelled as a receiver out of the backfield, catching 42 balls for 342 yards and four TDs. He just wasn’t the guy who once ran for 2,006 yards in a season and was generally considered one of the premier break-away backs in all the land.
Will he be that guy again with the Jets? It’s hard to say because he’s part of what could be a killer backfield, with bruiser Chris Ivory and all-purpose Bilal Powell. While some think Johnson will be relied on more as a pass-catcher, I can totally see offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg riding a hot hand, or, if times get desperate, sticking with the guy who’s been there and done that.
Johnson is probably a few good seasons away from cementing his place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Let’s not forget that he should pass 10,000 yards from scrimmage early in the season opener against the Oakland Raiders and could challenge the 914 yards Tomlinson rushed for during his first season with the Jets, plus add another 50-55 receptions.
If all that happens the Jets will be ecstatic, and likely in the playoffs.
Johnson has thus far put to rest any notions that he’s lost a step. He was the Jets’ best offensive player during the preseason, running for 107 yards on 23 carries — a robust 4.7 yards-per-carry average — and added six receptions for 52 yards in basically parts of three games, showing no ill affects of the knee injury that was considered a red flag during the offseason.
“I feel good,” Johnson told the Jets’ official website last week. “The situation, being able to go out there and get snaps and get plays and play game after game I’m feeling good, but I know in the end I have to stay on top of it and continue to get my treatment and go to rehab, stuff like that, and it will be all right.”
The 5-foot-11, 203-pounder showed the burst that’s become his trademark, and did a lot of hard running, making the first guy miss and requiring more than one tackler to take him down. Assuming he stays healthy — he’s missed just one game due to injury in his career — and the Jets’ offensive line continues to display the run-blocking prowess that showed up in the preseason game against Cincinnati and carried over to the regular season dress rehearsal against the Giants, Johnson could be everything the Jets envisioned — and more.
General manager John Idzik continues to catch a lot of heat for what he didn’t do during the offseason. The Jets still sit around $21 million under the salary cap with an utter disaster on paper at cornerback and just two good wide receivers. But I don’t think he’s given enough credit for what he did do, like signing Johnson for two years at just $8 million, in addition to grabbing the best receiver on the market in Eric Decker and arguably the best quarterback in Vick, as well.
If nothing else, the Jets needed to get better this past offseason on offense. Last year’s team was pretty much a joke, short of Ivory and Powell combining to rush for 1,530 yards on 4.3 per carry. The job Ryan and Mornhinweg did to get to 8-8 was borderline immortal.
But now Ryan, and likely his staff, are under the gun yet again — this time to make the playoffs. And while a division title is probably unrealistic considering the Patriots and Tom Brady figure to be pretty incredible on offense, there’s no reason why the Jets shouldn’t be right there for a wild card.
And Johnson is going to play a massive role. You could argue he’s more important to the Jets now than Tomlinson ever was, because with the way these athletes take care of themselves and train today, and how the vast majority of teams have sprinted in the opposite direction of employing a true featured back, 29 or 30 years old doesn’t have to be the point of no return for a running back.
If Smith and the passing game take that next step, the Jets’ backfield could run over everyone.
It’s that good.
And Johnson might just show more than a few glimpses of that guy CJ2K.
Read more columns by Jeff Capellini and follow him on Twitter at @GreenLanternJet
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