Chris Johnson Numbers Show a Very Average Running Back

chris johnsonTennessee Titan’s have released their six-year running back Chris Johnson as he has experienced a steady decrease in production over the years. After rushing for 2,006 yards in 2009, his first season as the primary running back, and garnering the nickname CJ2K, Johnson has seen his number decrease and has had trouble finding open room to run. Many say that the three-time pro bowler does not have the legs to continue as a lead back and that is why he was cut.  CJ2K was seen as a premiere back in the league, one of the best after his 2,006 yard campaign, but the pro-bowl running back may have never actually been as good as everyone thought he was. The numbers show that Chris Johnson is really a very average running back. The only difference is that he carries the threat of tearing off a long run, which is the only reason many saw him as a top back in the league.

2009 was easily CJ2K’s best year, setting franchise and career records. He averaged 5.6 yards per carry and added another 50 reception for 503 yards. CJ2K is one of the fastest north-south runners in the league, which is why he is capable of tearing off such long runs. In 2009 he had runs of 91, 89, 85, 57 and 52 yards; obviously he had some nice holes to run through and no one to meet him on the other side. From 2010-2013 Johnson averaged 4.3, 4.1, 4.5, and 3.9 yards per carry, well below his 2009 mark. But if you take away his five longest runs (the ones mentioned before) his average that year drops all the way down to 4.6. In fact, those five runs totaled 18.6 percent of his total yards for the year. That is not to say that he did not have a great season, because he did, very deserving of his pro-bowl too, but it paints a much different picture of the once-thought-to-be-great, running back.

A running back’s main purpose is to provide consistency. When a team needs three, four or five yards, they want to be able to hand the ball off to the running back and get those yards. Long runs are great, and a nice surprise, but overall, teams want to be able to trust their back to get the job done. A big part of a running back’s success comes from his offensive line, specifically, if they can open holes in the defense for the tail back to run through. The Titans’ line was rock solid in 2009, they only gave up 15 sacks the whole season, as well as opened holes for CJ2K to run through; the leading receiver that year, Kenny Britt, only had 703 receiving yards, so it was all CJ2K that year. By diving deeper into the numbers, it shows more clearly that Chris Johnson’s success came by way of his offensive line’s very productive play, and he was really only an average running back, with a lot of speed.

CJ2K’s numbers have steadily declined since his 2009 campaign, but if his 2009 season never happened, most would not be looking at Johnson the same way. Between 2010-2013 he averaged 283 attempts for 1,183 yards, which is an average of 4.1 yards per carry. That is very average in the NFL for a primary back. Again, if his top five runs from 2009 were taken away, CJ2K would only have averaged 4.6 yards per carry, much closer to his normal average. So what kind of running back is Johnson? He is an average running back, with five big runs in him per year. Between 2010-2013, his five longest runs account for 17.5, 16.1, 25.3, and 11.4 percent of his total yards for the season. 2012 is actually pretty shocking to see. A quarter of his total yards for the entire season came on only fivecarries. Johnson has also had 30 or more carries every season for negative yards; he had 45 runs of negative yardage in 2009 and 2010. This does not show a consistent running back, this shows a running back who is reliant on a good offensive line.

Now that CJ2K has been released, he is sure to be picked up by another team. He may not be used as the featured back, but he is too good of a player to be passed over, and will land somewhere in a complimentary role. The New York Jets have been mentioned, and he could serve in a similar role that LaDainian Tomlinson played for the Jets in 2010, which was 219 attempts for 914 yards, a 4.2 yards per carry average, very doable for CJ2K. He averaged 4.1 from 2010-2013. In Tennessee, Johnson always had to act as the workhorse for the team, and at five foot, 11 inches and 200 pounds, it wore him down. Last year was the first year he was given any sort of relief as Shonn Greene was on the team and ran the ball 77 times. Chris Johnson is a very fast running back, capable of running by any defense if he is given a hole to run through, but as the numbers show, outside of a few long runs, he is just an average running back.

Commentary by Chris Dragicevich
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Pro Football Reference
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