Titans win despite still-broken run game

Chris Johnson's yards per carry for the season is now two yards fewer than his career average. Grant Halverson/Getty Images

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- With apologies to Chris Johnson, I’ve grown tired of all the apologies for Chris Johnson.

The Tennessee Titans got to celebrate a win at LP Field on Sunday, a 27-10 handling of the winless Indianapolis Colts.

But Johnson was completely ineffective again: Against the league's second-worst run defense, he turned 14 carries into 34 yards. The effort dropped his yards-per-carry average for the season from 2.9 to 2.8.

The consensus remains that everyone involved shares in the blame, and certainly they do. But I simply didn’t see the sort of determination you expect from an NFL lead back, better yet one of the six who’s topped 2,000 yards in a season and one who entered the season with a 5.0 career average.

In the other locker room, it was no surprise that the Colts said Johnson is the same guy he’s always been. It makes them look good to say it, because they just stopped him. And they aren’t about to give him any fodder to get going for the rematch on Dec. 18 at Lucas Oil Stadium.

But a bit of what came from Johnson’s teammates bordered on excuse making.

“Honestly, a lot of times it’s not his fault why runs don’t happen for him,” said the team’s second running back, Javon Ringer." ... Of course fans are going to see just Chris Johnson, the name. They’re not seeing how things develop for him to be able to have those big runs. The most important part of our offense is our offensive line.”

“I guess everybody would feel different if they came in and watched film with us and literally saw why things happen.”

Great, I accept on behalf of the AFC South blog readers. What time should I be at the facility? Will we actually name names on each play? When I see Johnson get hit early and stop trying, will I suddenly see how that’s not on him?

Ringer tiptoed like Johnson on a stretch play when asked how he fared better turning his 14 carries into 60 yards, 26 more than Johnson managed with the same workload. Ringer too doesn’t want to offend.

A defense lets down when Ringer is in the game because he’s not earned the respect Johnson has, he explained.

Maybe the Titans will be trendsetters. Maybe soon we’ll see offensive strategy shift across the league: Dynamic playmakers will head for the bench so defenses will relax in order for second-stringers with less talent, shorter résumés and smaller contracts to take advantage.

Also in the Titans’ locker room I heard that Johnson split carries in his 2,006-yard season with LenDale White (when Johnson actually had 294 more). I heard that it’s still relatively early (yes, we’re only 43.8 percent into the Titans’ season). I heard about the strain of expectations and even about the benefits of a reduced workload.

“I know for me you can try to do too much when people get on you,” quarterback Matt Hasselbeck said. “When things aren’t going well, you can try to do a little too much … I know that’s gotten me, but I didn’t see that.”

When guard Jake Scott was told coach Mike Munchak intends to split the carries 50-50 going forward -- which was not actually what Munchak said -- Scott suggested that could help Johnson.

So a guy who just got a $53 million contract with $30 million guaranteed by selling himself as a playmaker would do well to be reduced to a part-time player, I asked?

“If he can be better doing that, that’s fine,” Scott said. “If that works out better, it might be better for him ... We have two good backs, we actually have three good backs. There is no reason to put the whole load on one person.”

How the standards have fallen. I don’t propose Johnson take every handoff, but he’s supposed to be a singular back. He should be expected to be a singular back. He got the contract of a singular back. And a singular back gets the lion’s share of the work.

Hasselbeck and Munchak ultimately had better reasons to explain Johnson's recent decline.

Hasselbeck played with Shaun Alexander in Seattle, a running back whose career dropped precipitously after he got a big contract.

“When you’re so successful and you produce in such a major way with fantasy football and all of that stuff, people are just expecting it just to happen,” Hasselbeck said. “There’s a lot that goes into it. It’s hard to be that elite all the time, so people got on him real quick, real easy. He probably got a little too much credit when things were good and definitely got too much blame when things were bad.”

Scott said Sunday’s win featured the Titans’ best run effort of the season.

It was the best day in terms of carries (31) and apologies made on Johnson’s behalf. It was the second-best in terms of yards (96). But only twice have the Titans fared worse per carry than the 3.1 average.

As for the effort question, Munchak offered the best explanation of the day and said he’s got no complaints in that department.

“To me, he’s running like he’s done here, like the type of runner he is,” Munchak said. “He’s never been known to be a guy who’s going to break two or three tackles at the line of scrimmage. That’s not his type of thing.

"... I don’t think people are apologizing for him.”

The coach said everyone is taking accountability for it: the back, the line, the fullback, the playcallers, the coaches.

“No one’s protecting him,” Munchak said. “… It’s just hard for our team. I coached the offensive line for 14 years, we’ve never been last in rushing. When you are all of a sudden, in something that you’ve prided yourself on, obviously it gets a lot of attention.”

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