Chris Johnson has answered any question about his willingness to show up for the Tennessee Titans offseason conditioning program.
“He has been here five days a week, not three, not four,” coach Mike Munchak said Friday following the third of the team’s 10 allowable organized team activities (OTAs). “A lot of the weeks he has been here all five when that is not even necessary to do. I think he is realizing the benefits of being here and the benefits of being around his teammates.”
It remains to be seen whether those benefits show in his performance.
Johnson and the Titans hope this fall to reverse a trend in which his production has declined each of the previous two seasons in virtually every important way imaginable – yards, yards per carry and touchdowns. He hit career-lows in all three in 2011.
Coaches insist they still want – and need – him to be a significant part of the offense. Although with the selection of wide receiver Kendall Wright in the first round and the addition of more run-and-shoot principles into the offense, it seems like that the run game will be deemphasized.
“To score you have to be able to throw the ball,” offensive coordinator Chris Palmer said. “To win you have to be able to run. You’re going to hit some bad weather and you’re going to have to be able to run the ball.”
Even with Johnson’s struggles, Tennessee won more than it lost in 2011. It finished 9-7 and remained in the playoff picture all the way until the final week of the season.
However, under first-year coach Mike Munchak and Palmer, he averaged a career-low 16.4 rushes per contest. Two years earlier, when he set a franchise record with 2,006 rushing yards, he carried it an average of 22.4 times per contest.
“Since I got here, a lot of seasons, everybody has been keying on me,” Johnson said. “So, having all the extra additions, I feel good that everybody is not going to be able to key on me.”
The fact that he has spent so much time at the practice facility already represents a change.
Johnson was a no-show for all of last year’s training camp while he attempted to renegotiate his contract. He eventually got the deal he wanted, one which made him one of the NFL’s highest paid running backs but which also included a financial incentive to take part in the offseason conditioning program.
Prior to that, he skipped the offseason conditioning program each of the previous two years.
“I started working a month earlier this year,” he said. “It was a situation where I wanted to be heavier this year and stay at a weight. Everything’s been going good, coming in for the first OTAs. The first one is always tough, but once we get into it and get a little more OTAs under our belt, it will go pretty smooth.”
After all, change takes time.
“I think just the fact that he is here every day and the fact that he is out there working hard and in the weight room … he looks good and he has a great attitude, so he is doing everything he needs to come back and have a great year,” Munchak said. “I think that is encouraging for everyone to see and that is what you want from one of your top players is that kind of attitude which he has had.
“He has been awesome.”