As it turns out, Chris Johnson actually did the Tennessee Titans a favor with his training camp vanishing act and subpar performance in 2011.
With one season and one offseason under the current coaching staff now complete, it is clear that head coach Mike Munchak and offensive coordinator Chris Palmer have no interest in the same old, same old on offense.
They want to update and unleash the attack to bring it more in line with the modern NFL. Translation: They want to throw the ball more. A lot more.
Whatever their core philosophies, both have been around long enough and are smart enough to know that when you have a bona fide playmaker in the backfield or wherever he might be, it makes sense to get him the ball as much as possible.
When Munchak moved into the big office and brought Palmer on board nearly a year and a half ago, that’s exactly what they had in Johnson. Or so they thought.
The glow of a 2,000-yard rushing season in 2009 — one that included a dazzling and unprecedented array of long runs — had not completely faded. CJ was not at his best in 2010, but he was still pretty good, with more than 1,300 rushing yards, 11 touchdowns and an average approaching 4.5 yards per carry.
During the lockout, Palmer talked about what he had seen in film reviews and expressed the need to take advantage of the running back’s unusual physical gifts.
Then CJ was a no-show at training camp. His desire for a long-term, big money contract kept him away during a time when Munchak spent a lot of energy to foster a team-building atmosphere. That also was Palmer’s first actual look at his players and his first insight into what he possibly could do with them, and he didn’t see his running back.
Right from the start of the season it was clear that the CJ of previous years was a mirage. The 2011 version lacked the ability to get into open spaces and failed to make defenders miss when he did. He barely cracked 1,000 yards for the season (1,047, to be exact) and scored just four rushing touchdowns, less than half his total in any of his first three professional seasons.
Munchak and Palmer were freed.
They owe Johnson nothing in terms game-planning. If they decide that the best approach is to get him roughly 12 carries a game during the coming season, who’s to argue?
A year ago they gave him every opportunity to live up to the standard he set for himself under the previous staff, and week after week it all seemed so futile.
Whether it was his own shortcomings, the play of the offensive line, the play-calling or something else is irrelevant. No one wants to see that again.
Thus, there is nothing that ties the Titans to the old way of thinking. Now they can throw to get the lead and run to win, as Palmer recently put it. That means they can count on CJ to help run out the clock late in games but they won’t ask him to help them run away from the opposition.
If he doesn’t like it, he has no one to blame but himself. He’s the one who pulled the disappearing act — literally and figuratively — last summer and fall.
Memories are short in the NFL. At this point, his 2,000-yard season might as well have been a century ago.
As the Titans look to their offensive future, they no longer are bound by their past. And they owe it all to the struggles of one man.