There were so many questions in regard to the Tennessee Titans at the start of the 2011 season.
New coach. New coordinators. New quarterbacks. How long would it take to implement and perfect their plans? Was there even enough time to put it all together in the wake of the lockout?
When all was said and done, only one significant question lingered. What happened to Chris Johnson?
Throughout 16 games of uneven performances and some unpredictable results (remember that loss at Indianapolis?) Johnson was a constant source of consternation and frustration. He looked absolutely nothing like the guy who rushed for more than 2,000 yards and set an NFL record for total offense two years earlier.
Six weeks removed from the final snap, here’s a possible explanation. It’s all Vince Young’s fault.
Why not? Young gets blamed for so many of the issues that undermined the franchise during his five seasons in uniform — a stretch that did not include even a single playoff victory. He might as well continue to take blame even though he spent the last season with the Philadelphia Eagles.
In all seriousness, the general feeling throughout the fall was that the Titans did not miss Young for a single moment. Turns out that might not have been the case.
Look back to Johnson’s record-setting season.
It started with Kerry Collins under center and stayed that way through the first six weeks. Johnson topped 100 yards rushing just twice in those six games and failed to score a touchdown (rushing or receiving) in five of the six. His per game rushing average was 99.3 yards.
Young replaced Collins at the start of November, and Johnson rushed for at least 104 yards in each of the next 10 games. His per game average was a whopping 141 yards, and in five of those 10 he scored more than one rushing touchdown.
Coincidence? Probably not.
In 2010, as Young and Collins traded the job, five of Johnson’s eight 100-yard rushing games and eight of his 11 rushing touchdowns came when Young started. The running back again was less effective when Collins was the quarterback.
It is not difficult to explain those numbers.
Young scared no one with his ability to throw the ball. In fact, the quickest way to get beat by him was to attack the line of scrimmage and leave open spaces for him to run. What defenses did, therefore, was drop seven or eight defenders into zone coverage and react to the play.
That gave Johnson the extra half-second and few feet of space he needed to get in the open and make people miss, which he did time and time again that year.
It is no different than what took place throughout the 2011 season with Denver once Tim Tebow became the Broncos quarterback. It was no secret that Tebow was a capable runner or that Denver’s goal was to keep the ball on the ground, yet Tebow and Co. ended up with the league’s No. 1 rushing offense.
Sooner or later, the theory held, Tebow was going to have to throw, and more often than not that was a victory for the defense. So they waited from him to come to them through the air.
The exact same thing took place with Young — and with good reason. Recall that even with the ridiculous numbers Johnson posted in 2009, the Titans did not make the playoffs.
For all his virtues, Matt Hasselbeck is no threat to run the ball. So defenses were free to focus their full attention on Johnson at the start of every play — and the results were obvious.
Now we know. It wasn’t the holdout. It wasn’t complacence in the wake of a big contract. It was all Vince Young’s fault.