NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- In 2009, when Chris Johnson was stunning the entire NFL with 2,006 rushing yards, he was lighting it up as a pass catcher too: averaging 10.1 yards per catch.
Take away a 69-yard TD against the Texans on a play they messed up, failing to cover him when he split out, and he still managed 8.8 yards a catch.
Since then, however, while the Titans fed him 101 passes over two seasons, his 663 yards have produced an average far more digestible for defenses -- 6.6 yards. Still solid, but a good distance from 10.1.
Tennessee’s offseason talk has been about an explosive offense. Whether it’s Matt Hasselbeck or Jake Locker at quarterback, he’ll be throwing to Kenny Britt, Jared Cook, Nate Washington, Kendall Wright and, of course, Johnson.
“He’s got good hands and he’s explosive and he’s getting a little better feel for it, when to get open, how to slide," Titans running back coach Jim Skipper said. “The more comfortable he gets, the more confidence a quarterback will have in him. That’s just building.
“He’s a home run hitter, the guy can knock it out of the park any time.”
Johnson’s overall determination was in question last year, when he got a big contract extension prompted by a holdout, but then got suspect blocking and fell into bad habits. Eddie George recently said on Nashville radio that he saw Johnson stop moving his feet at initial contact and never really get back to it.
Here’s the thing that surprised me a bit in Johnson's answers to questions about his role as a pass catcher in 2012.
Johnson’s never talked about a willingness to take less of anything -- be it carries, yards, receptions, money or declarations about his speed. And that mentality can be just fine. It doesn’t necessarily translate to selfishness in football. It can equate to drive and hunger.
But he said the way he was used as a pass target by Titans offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger in 2009 and 2010 and the way he was used last year as Chris Palmer took over the post were different.
“I feel like I am a very good pass catcher, last year I think that’ the most passes I’ve caught,” he said.
Though he did have a career-best 57 receptions, he said it wasn’t necessarily indicative of his role in the pass game.
Injuries may have led the Titans to look to him more often than they would have liked, and coming from a West Coast offense system, Hasselbeck may have looked to his back sooner and more often than Palmer's more vertical plan will want.
“I think I was a little bit more involved in the pass offense with Dinger,” he said. “But with the situation that we’ve got here, since I got here we got a lot of playmakers on this offense. So it feels good to see a couple receivers out there putting up good numbers. I feel like it’s a different situation, if there’s a lot of us contributing, a lot of us making plays, I feel like it’s not a bad thing that I probably don’t get as many catches as I usually do.”
Johnson has put on some extra muscle to help him endure the pounding, and was with the team through the offseason for the first time in his career. Those things should help him.
A willingness to understand how being used less as a pass target could actually be a good thing for the team sounds like another sort of progress, too.