Everybody thought LaDainian Tomlinson was ready for a rocking chair at the age of 30. He was a diminished player for the San Diego Chargers in 2009, finishing the season with a hard-to-watch game against the New York Jets in the playoffs -- 12 carries, 24 yards.
The future Hall of Famer was fired by his forever team, and the Jets, of all teams, gave him a job, gambling the once great runner could reinvent himself. They looked past his pedestrian '09 numbers, determining that heart was a better barometer than his 3.3 yards per carry. They were right; he was terrific in 2010.
"This," Tomlinson said at the time, "has refreshed me, being here."
Four years later, the Jets are once again trying to catch an old lightning-back in a bottle. This time his name is Chris Johnson, and there's every reason to believe he can give them a season like Tomlinson did.
The Jets get Johnson at 28, a little younger than Tomlinson upon his arrival, but the narrative is the same: a fading star coming off his worst season.
Johnson staggered to the finish last season, looking more like CJ1K than the old CJ2K. He barely cracked he 1,000-yard plateau, managing a pedestrian 3.9 yards per rush. The Tennessee Titans decided -- and rightly so -- it made no sense to pay him an $8 million wage for 2014.
Clearly, the Jets aren't getting the Johnson of 2009, when he blew away the league by rushing for 2,006 yards with his sub-4.3 speed, but they should have a highly motivated back who will get an opportunity to duplicate what Tomlinson did in 2010.
That year, Tomlinson rushed for a team-high 914 yards on just 219 carries and caught 52 passes, three shy of the team leader. He was supposed to be Shonn Greene's backup, but Tomlinson was so impressive that he won the starting job and became an integral part of a team that came within one game of the Super Bowl.
Nothing jars a world-class athlete more than being told he's not good enough, that it's time to pack up and leave. Tomlinson used that as his fuel until his body finally broke down in 2011. The Jets are hoping for a similarly inspired Johnson, who's already talking about redemption.
"I can turn the bad things people are saying into a good thing for me, to give me motivation, to keep me hungry and to keep a chip on my shoulder and prove the naysayers wrong," he said Thursday on a conference call with the media.
You'll be disappointed if you expect a 1,500-yard season out of Johnson, but he's better than what he showed last year. He played 13 games on a torn meniscus, running behind a suspect offensive line for a team that didn't have its starting quarterback for half the season -- hardly ideal conditions for a running back.
"Chris Johnson isn't a bell cow anymore," a longtime NFL personnel executive said. "I don't know where his heart is -- there are some things underneath his hood that I don't like -- but for the right price, yeah, I think it's a good move."
The Jets paid a top-of-the-market price -- two years, $8 million -- but the cost is reasonable. Chances are, they will take a less-is-more approach with Johnson, hoping a time-share with Chris Ivory and Bilal Powell will preserve the remaining tread on Johnson's tires and improve his efficiency. That, of course, is based on the presumption that one of those tires isn't on the verge of a blowout.
Johnson disputed an ESPN report that said there's arthritis in his surgically repaired right knee, insisting he'll be fine. This bears watching, because the fire in his belly will burn out quickly if there's pain in his knee. If he's healthy, he'll be a plus for the offense.
"If a bad year is 1,100 yards, I'll take that all day," said ESPN analyst and former Jets tackle Damien Woody, alluding to Johnson's 1,077 last year.
Woody played for the Jets when Tomlinson arrived in 2010. At first, he wondered if Tomlinson was out of gas, but those concerns were allayed as soon as he saw the old running back on the field, doing his thing. Woody believes Johnson will respond the same way.
"The situations are really similar," Woody said. "You have two really good backs that were jettisoned from teams they had a lot of success with, dealing with the perception they're washed up. That, obviously, puts a chip on your shoulder."
The Jets have become a second-chance/last-chance stop for running backs. Before Tomlinson, there was Thomas Jones, who was outstanding before the salary-cap police decided it was time to go. A year ago, they traded for Ivory, who teased the New Orleans Saints for years.
As Woody noted, Jets coach Rex Ryan has way of reaching older players, coaxing them to give whatever they have left. Now he has Johnson, who still can be a productive runner -- as long as his wheels are as strong as his will.