The Tennessee Titans’ wish list as it pertains to their offense is long.
It includes almost-instant chemistry for a revamped offensive line, significant improvement by Jake Locker in his second year as a starting quarterback and good health for wide receiver Kenny Britt. Any one of those things figure to make the unit much better than it was a year ago. All of them could produce dramatic results.
Not on that list, though, is Chris Johnson’s increased involvement in the pass game. That’s because it’s not a wish.
“It needs to happen,” offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains said.
Since 1999, a Titans running back has caught more than 40 passes in a season six times. Johnson has done it in four of those six, and his 57 in 2011 were franchise’s most in 16 years by a running back. His 36 catches last season were the fewest of his career.
“[I want to] catch more balls,” Johnson said. “We want to have the approach that the run will open it up for the pass, but once we do get in the pass game [I want to] still be involved.”
Three times in the past 14 years Tennessee has finished 13-3. That was in 1999, 2000 and 2008. In two of those years (2000 and 2008), it was the NFL’s best regular season record. In 1999 it was a prelude to the franchise’s only Super Bowl appearance.
In all three, either Johnson or Eddie George topped 40 receptions.
Even though Johnson’s best receiving season did not result in a playoff berth, the Titans improved to 9-7 from 6-10 in 2010, the only time since 1999 the team had a losing record in a season that included at least 40 receptions from a running back. When his catches dipped to an all-time low last fall Tennessee’s record dropped again to 6-10.
“We need to get back to that just from the fact that he is a weapon, not just when you hand him the ball but when you throw him the ball as much as that,” coach Mike Munchak said. “We have to get more from that phase of the offense. [Johnson] is a big part of that.”
Johnson’s big-play ability is not a prominent when he’s a receiver as when he’s a runner. He has averaged 7.2 yards per catch for his career and only once (2009) did he average as much as eight yards per reception.
Of his 98 career touchdowns, 94 have come on running plays. His longest reception was 69 yards, although that one and another for 66 yards (both in 2010) resulted in touchdowns.
The idea is that short throws to him — and the resultant short gains — will pay big dividends in how the offense functions overall.
“When you’re going to run the football and you’re going to throw play-action shots and that type of stuff then if the play-action shot is not there you dump it down,” Loggains said. “Then it’s second-and-6 or second-and-4 instead of second-and-10.”
A look at the team’s top single-season reception totals by a running back during the Titans’ era:
• Chris Johnson (2011) 57-418 0 TD
• Chris Johnson (2009) 50-503 2 TD
• Eddie George (2000) 50-453 2 TD
• Eddie George (1999) 47-458 4 TD
• Chris Johnson (2010) 44-245 1 TD
• Chris Johnson (2008) 43-260 1 TD
• Eddie George (2001) 37-279 0 TD
• Eddie George (2002) 36-255 2 TD
• Chris Johnson (2012) 36-232 0 TD