Chris Johnson: A Chance of Lightning

Ben Stockwell examines Chris Johnson's production to date.

| 3 years ago

Chris Johnson: A Chance of Lightning

chris-johnsonYesterday the Tennessee Titans cut Chris Johnson at the end of one of the most protracted release sagas of the offseason. The whole football world has seen it coming for months or more but the Titans stretched it out until the eve of their first official team activities under new head coach Ken Whisenhunt. Presumably, the Titans were hoping to find a suitor for a trade but none was forthcoming, so they cut their losses before he could set foot on the practice field.

This is just another nail in the coffin of the notion of a running back as a prized and expensive possession to an NFL team; a former 2,000-yard runner who has the longest active streak of 1,000-yard seasons deemed unworthy of a $10 million cap hit with no other team willing to acquire and absorb that hit either.

In free agency we have seen teams slow on the uptake to sign running backs and the pre-draft noise around the position is that again none will be taken with a high pick. It would seem the whole NFL world has come to the opinion that running backs are a dime a dozen, even those with six straight 1,000 yard seasons.

Breaking in with a Bang

Johnson exploded onto the scene as a pro with a 1,200-yard season as a rookie which was built around explosive plays – more than a third of his rushing yards (439 out of 1,228) came on 16 carries of 15 yards or more. He took that a step further in 2009 with his memorable 2,000-yard season where he nearly doubled those breakaways and gained in excess of 1,000 yards on those 30 carries alone. Only he and Adrian Peterson (2012) have achieved that feat in the last six years and this marks out the explosive player that Johnson can be.

With his scintillating straight-line speed Johnson is a threat to break a run off whenever you give him an alley. In his six seasons with the Titans, Johnson recorded 110 breakaway carries (second-most behind Peterson, 130) for 3,189 yards. Just 6.3% of his backfield carries have accounted for 39.8% of his rushing yards.

Season Total Att Breakaway Runs Breakaway Yards Breakaway TD
2008 251 16 439 5
2009 358 30 1,026 8
2010 316 20 573 4
2011 262 16 389 1
2012 276 14 491 5
2013 279 14 271 2
Career 1742 110 3,189 25

However Johnson’s production is in clear decline both in terms of total yards on the ground and also in terms of his ability and production as a breakaway runner. It would be unrealistic to expect Johnson to have sustained his 2009 pace in subsequent seasons, but he has fallen away toward and below his rookie levels ever since.

In 2013 he recorded career lows in breakaways (14, tied with 2012), breakaway yards (271) and his average gain on breakaway runs (19.4), dropping below 20 yards per carry for the first time in his career (previous low of 24.3 in 2011). Clearly either Johnson is losing step (he did play through injury in 2013) or opposing defenses have got to grips with his game and Johnson has been unable to find a method of gaining yards in a different way.

Opportunities Aplenty Not Exploited

When an explosive player ceases to be as explosive a popular party to shoulder the blame is his offensive line, often without looking further into the stats or — better yet — at the tape to see how they played. In terms of opportunities and getting a running back to the line of scrimmage without contact, the 2013 Tennessee offensive line actually did a better job than any Johnson has run behind to this point in his career.

During his 2,000-yard season Johnson was contacted in the backfield on more than 25% of his carries, last year he was delivered to the line of scrimmage without contact on just shy of 80% of his carries. Yet on those 223 attempts he could only collect a career-low of 5.0 yards per, below the league average over the last six years on such carries.

For full disclosure, his yards before contact on those 223 runs was 3.0 yards per carry (one of the lower marks he’s had to work with in his career), though that is still better than the league average (2.8). This in itself represents one of Johnson’s limitations as a runner that will provide any potential employers with a conundrum of how to make best use of him.

Season Total Att No Backfield Contact (Pct) Yards TDs Missed Tackles
2008 251 177 (70.5%) 1,237 9 26
2009 358 266 (74.3%) 2,029 12 24
2010 316 226 (71.5%) 1,385 11 28
2011 262 199 (76.2%) 1,050 4 19
2012 276 212 (77.1%) 1,340 6 20
2013 279 223 (79.9%) 1,106 6 15
Career 1742 1303 (74.9%) 8,147 48 132

We recently published an article giving new readers and subscribers a guide to our grades and how to make best use of our premium section. Johnson is a player who often raises eyebrows in terms of his overall grade and his ranking in our by-position lists. Even including his 2009 season, Johnson has never earned a very high rushing grade and for one simple reason: our grading system is a play-by-play model which emphasizes down-to-down performance. Johnson, for all his raw yardage, is not a down-to-down performer but rather a product of his big plays and enough of a workload to produce stats that produce a healthy average.

Now this is not to say that Johnson isn’t an extremely dangerous and productive runner, he quite clearly is.  This is where it is up to individuals to decide how much they value the potential for a home run play, some may weigh that ability higher than we do at PFF. Despite that potential it is important to note that Johnson is not what you would necessarily think of as a typical change of pace back, he is almost unique in the way he exploits his blistering speed.

Johnson is not unique as a spectacularly fast running back, but unlike others he does not possess (or at least demonstrate consistently) the ability to make his speed tell in short areas with elusiveness to create space for himself. He thrives on straight-line speed, angles, and mistakes by defenders to outrun players for big yardage.

His Elusive Rating (a measure of a backs ability to avoid tackles and collect yards after contact) has been in steady decline since his 2,000-yard season (career-high of 40.3 in 2009 to a career-low of 15.5 in 2013) and so his big-play ability has become ever more dependent upon his blocking and the play of opposing defenses.

Thunder with a Chance of Lightning

If Johnson’s breakaway ability is declining, then the smart play would appear to be pairing him with a powerful runner to wear the opposition down, bringing Johnson in when they are tired and more likely to make a mistake. Not an unreasonable thought process, but the question becomes how much does Johnson rely on those poor plays by opposing defenses?

Johnson is really a back without comparison in today’s NFL. Perhaps the closest in style is Darren McFadden who hasn’t been nearly as productive as Johnson in any sense, so it will be fascinating to see who pursues him and for what role. If you scale back his runs then you scale back the potential volume of big plays that he can produce.

In a ‘split carries’ situation you would be fortunate see the sort of production that the Cardinals and Bills got from the likes of Andre Ellington and C.J. Spiller as he doesn’t have the same lateral ability to beat defenders and create space from a stand still.

A team willing to accept subpar running on a down-to-down basis for the potential of the occasional breakaway run, and optimistic about his impact in a limited or ‘time share’ role, will be one willing to bring Johnson in.


Follow Ben on Twitter @PFF_Ben

| Director of Analysis

Ben joined Pro Football Focus in 2007, and has since been in charge of the company’s analysis process. He also contributes to PFF’s weekly NFL podcast.

  • Sifter

    Houston, Denver and New Orleans would be 3 teams that I can think of that didn’t really get many big plays last year at RB, but were better at consistent yardage ie. potential fits for Johnson. Houston needs a backup to replace Tate, Denver needs a replacement for Moreno, and I guess NO a replacement for Sproles, although Khiry Robinson might be that guy. Denver may not care about big plays from the RB position either, they get plenty of yardage in the air. NO is a bit similar. So I’d say Houston fits best for the need for a guy who can hit a homerun occasionally. Although apparently the Jets are interested in Johnson, he might end up there.

  • RONBO19

    Interesting PFF did not mention the fact that one of the biggest concerns regarding Johnson is the decline in his “yards after contact”. According to Ray Lucas on the Jets
    network Johnson yards after contact went from 3.9 to 1.7 which might indicate he is not hitting the hole like he used to and is instead breaking his runs outside to avoid the contact. As the average running backs career is less than 4 years and Johnson will be entering his 7th season this year that has to be a major concern to any team signing him.

  • [email protected]

    I think what you really want out of a running back is consistent production and threatening the interior of the defense. The real value in running the football is dominating time of possession and wearing out the defense.