Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson had a disappointing season by any standard, and his work this season was testament to just how minor an accomplishment a 1,000-yard rushing season can be.
He sold himself as a playmaker that went beyond a running back, got a $55 million extension, pocketed a $10 million bonus and a $3 million base salary and ran with little fire for much of the season. He came into the season averaging 5 yards per carry over his career and managed 4 yards a carry in 16 games.
A whopping 55 percent of Johnson's rushing yards came in four games — wins over Cleveland, Carolina, Tampa Bay and Buffalo. (Teams that combined to post a 20-44 record this season.)
It was fair to question his effort at times, and he did not do good work contributing when he was not getting the ball. I think he considered the contract more cake (reward) than carrot (incentive). He said his speed has not dropped off, but he didn’t appear to be able to kick it into his highest gear when he had rare chances to run away from people.
If the Titans decided they made a mistake, they could cut their losses.
Five days after the Super Bowl, his $8 million base salary in 2012 becomes full guaranteed.
Same in 2013 with $9 of his $10 million base.
So if the Titans cut him by Feb. 10, they’d be off the hook for $17 million of additional guaranteed money.
Johnson had no real idea of that as a possibility when I asked him about it last week.
“How does that work out, I don’t know how that works out,” he said. “I’m not really thinking about it, to be honest. … I wouldn’t think it’d be a question. Still at the end of the day, I haven’t had a good year, but I still have a chance to go over 1,000 yards (which he did).
“At the end of the day, if that’s the situation, and they feel like that’s their best business move or anything like that and that’s their decision, I’ve just got to live with it. I’d be surprised.”
Indications from inside Tennessee headquarters are the Titans will make it clear to Johnson that they expect better, but that there will be no serious consideration of cutting him to save the guarantees.
His contract calls for him to sacrifice $250,000 if he’s not at 30 offseason workouts with the team.
Keeping him in Nashville to work with Titans trainers, coaches and teammates is one thing the team feels will help him going forward. I think he’s going to hate hearing from people he runs into how he killed their fantasy teams.
I expect him to be motivated for a big 2012, though I hope if he’s at his locker later today during a media period he doesn’t make any yardage guarantees. The Titans need to work on their interior offensive line and go into 2012 expecting not to be CJ-reliant, but balanced.
The question will be, will that motivation be enough to push him back to an elite level or have the Titans seen his best?