NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- It’s everybody’s fault.
Five games into the Tennessee Titans’ season, Chris Johnson is not running the ball well. The team is fortunate to be 3-2 and heading into a game where it can establish itself as the division favorite without much of a contribution from the guy who's supposed to be their top playmaker.
And everyone involved says they have a role in it.
If the Titans’ biggest weapon continues to struggle, the fortunes are going to turn.
So what’s wrong?
The consensus is that he has been too hesitant and that the line is not blocking well enough.
“The Titans' interior offensive line and fullback haven’t played as well, the guards in particular,” one high-ranking NFL personnel man said. “Johnson isn’t pressing the hole with as much confidence and hasn’t been as decisive on his cuts, but a lot of that is controlled by what movement you’re able to get up front to create some creases.”
Those are pretty simple conclusions and there are two answers to them:
Play better, which this group has shown before it can do. “We’ve proven we can get it done,” left guard Leroy Harris said.
Change some of the personnel involved.
Let’s examine some of the key issues here.
CJ’s mentality: He’s saying all the right things and all the same things -- he just needs to continue to play and do all the same things and it will all work out. He has used the word slump.
"We don't want to get into I'm blaming the offensive line or the offensive line is blaming me," he said. "We've just basically got to work with what we've got."
Running backs coach Jim Skipper said he has worked to keep Johnson upbeat, so that he's not carrying concern around and letting it affect his game. Skipper’s emphasis is on staying positive, which sounds simple but can be one ingredient that helps a turnaround.
“You’ve got to keep practicing hard and be optimistic and be positive,” Skipper said. “And that’s what we’re doing. Just go back and just be Chris. His timing is coming back, things are a bit quicker for him, and hopefully it starts paying some dividends. ... You don’t add anything or do anything different. You just play football and do what the play is designed to do.”
Former NFL offensive line coach Larry Zierlein watched the Titans’ loss to the Steelers.
“The thing that struck me in that game was that Chris Johnson was very indecisive, particularly when running the outside zone/stretch play, which I believe is their signature play,” he said. “That play can go inside or outside but the runner must decide by his fourth step, based on his key of the defensive end, whether he is going inside or outside. It appeared to me that he was pre-determining to go outside and running laterally well beyond his fourth step. And when that wasn’t there, by the time he took it back inside the backside pursuit had closed that off, too.”
Team mentality: Coach Mike Munchak thinks the running game made big strides in the win in Cleveland and that a stall against the Steelers is hardly unusual.
“I still think he’s in a better position than people think he’s in,” Munchak said of Johnson. “Yes, he’s not had a great start. We are not happy with where we are in the run game. There’s no doubt about that and we know if we’re going to win the game this weekend or win any games or win our division, we’re going to have to run the ball a lot better.
“It’s hopefully staying in the game. The two games we lost, he had 12 carries and 13 carries. We can’t afford to let that happen in this game against the Texans. We have to run the football if we’re going to win, just like they have to.”
Offensive coordinator Chris Palmer’s play calling in Cleveland returned to some of unconventional counter-action that has helped Johnson before. Anything that gets the defense leaning the wrong way can be a big help to Johnson.
Space: Right guard Jake Scott said there are not regular busted assignments up front, that Johnson is the same and what’s going on “is not him.” Get him into space and he’s as dangerous as ever.
The thing is, Johnson’s rarely been in space. To get into space he first has to get through traffic, and so right now how good he can be running in traffic is the biggest question.
I’d like him to spin, dive and squirm to turn a no-gain into a yard and to turn a 1-yard run into a 2-yard run. That may be the start of a turnaround as much as a home run.
And he’s got to do some of that to make up for what’s been insufficient blocking.
“Oh, the run blocking has been hideous,” said Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders. “The total opposite of the pass blocking. Dead last in our Adjusted Line Yards stat. But Johnson doesn't seem to have the same burst, either. He doesn't have the long highlight runs he normally gets, even when he is able to get a hole.”
Potential for change: Munchak and offensive line coach Bruce Matthews, both Hall of Fame offensive linemen, have steadfastly supported Harris and center Eugene Amano, the young guys who have been the weakest line links. The organization deferred to that stance when making moves to adjust the roster before the season and most analysts, myself included, tend to still give those coaches the benefit of the doubt.
But Munchak was asked recently if the team was considering any changes to the line and he said “not yet.” That’s the first acknowledgement that it’s possible they’d pull someone. Fernando Velasco is the primary alternative on the interior, and he has played well in limited chances.
Both Amano and Harris said they are appreciative of the support from their coaches, but know they need to play better to continue to earn it.
“You never can get too comfortable,” Harris said. “You always want to play like your job is on the line.”
“You’ve got to be consistent at what you do each and every week in order to be relevant,” Amano said.
The contract: It has been a bad five games. But it’s far, far too early to decide conclusively that the Titans blew it by giving Johnson a big extension -- ending Johnson's preseason holdout by adding four years and $53 million with $30 million guaranteed to the two years he had remaining. It’s far, far too early to say conclusively that Johnson’s not the same player now that he got paid.
I understand the temptation to rush to judgment. I am here to try to temper it. Things can turn around in a week. But the longer he struggles, the bigger the worry.