There’s no question that Chris Johnson got off to the worst start of his career this season.
No one has been able to say for sure why. Many speculated that it was because he skipped all of training camp and the preseason in a contract dispute. Some theorized it had to do with changes to the coaching staff and the scheme. Others pointed to the offensive line as the problem.
Whatever the case, this much is true: Even at his best, Johnson always has been better late in the season than early.
Johnson’s 190-yard effort in the victory over Tampa Bay a little more than a week ago was the 27th time in his career he rushed for 100 yards or more in a game. Two-thirds of those performances, including his franchise record 228 against Jacksonville in 2009, came in November, December or January.
Thus, with Sunday’s game at Buffalo the first of four this month, and with one more scheduled for Jan. 1 at Houston, the hope is that form holds.
“Regardless of how you’re running in general — we haven’t done great early in the season — but November and December, when you’re trying to make a playoff push, that’s when you want to be running the ball the best anyway,” left tackle Michael Roos said. “You don’t want to waste all your runs early on and [because] when the games start to matter more, you want to be able to run the ball.”
Through his first three seasons in the league Johnson played 11 games in December and topped 100 yards rushing in seven of them. He was a perfect four-for-four in 2009 on his way to 2,000 yards and had 136 (on 19 carries) in his first, Dec. 7, 2008, against Cleveland.
His December average was 99.8 yards per game. That was his best for any month before his breakout performance against the Buccaneers (the third-highest single-game total of his career) drove his November average up to 104.8.
Plus, many of his best November games have come in the last week of the month. In 20 career regular-season contests played after Nov. 20, he topped 100 yards 13 times and averaged 103.6 yards per outing.
“The running … that’s what we do,” fullback Ahmard Hall said. “The Titans are known for the fact that we’re going to run the ball. If defenses stack the box, we’re still going to run the ball. For whatever reason this year, we started real slow in the running game.”
For the first time in his career, Johnson did not have at least one 100-yard game in September. His most productive effort was 53 yards in Week 2 against Baltimore.
October offered a little hope, with 101 yards against Cleveland. He managed just 103 yards total in the three games that followed, though.
“We have been talking about it all year and how [the running game] hasn’t been up to the standard of how we like,” coach Mike Munchak said. “We have to finish real strong.
“For us, a successful year running the ball means that we win football games … by running that football. That has to be a big part of it.”
That has not necessarily been the case.
The Titans entered this month with a 4-3 record in Johnson’s 100-yard December games. However, they were just 5-7 overall in December over the previous three seasons, which suggests it is important to finish strong in the run game, regardless of how this season started.
“I feel like there’s some momentum coming on,” Johnson said prior to the Buffalo game. “We just have to keep consistent and keep executing the plays. … I feel if we do that, there are going to be some pretty good rushing days.”
There are any number of reasons for the Tennessee Titans to want running back Chris Johnson to rush for 1,000 yards again this season.
Fullback Ahmard Hall has one that is uniquely his own.
“I know it’s important for everybody, but me — personally — just kind of being selfish, I’ve blocked for a 1,000-yard rusher every year I’ve been here,” Hall said. “So it’s definitely important for me to get him to 1,000 yards so I can keep that streak going. I know the offensive line, and everybody on the offense wants to get him there also.”
Hall’s streak covers each of the five seasons since he entered the league as a 26-year-old undrafted rookie in 2006 and includes three different 1,000-yard rushers — Travis Henry in 2006, LenDale White in 2007 and Johnson 2008-10.
It also borders on unprecedented.
Although the franchise has had a 1,000-yard rusher in 13 of the last 15 seasons and 23 overall, it never has had one six years in a row. The current streak of five equaled the one from 1996-2000, the first five years of Eddie George’s career. There also was a four-year stretch from 1978-81, the first four years of Earl Campbell’s career.
“I know people don’t look at that as being as big as it was at one time, because you are playing 16 games,” coach Mike Munchak said. “But it’s still an accomplishment to get to that, and then you are
hoping to better that.”
Hall’s streak of clearing the way for 1,000-yard rushers already is a franchise record of sorts. George did not even have a fullback for the first three of his five straight. Campbell ran behind Tim Wilson for his four in a row.
“For any running back, getting over 1,000 yards, you’re doing a pretty good job,” Johnson said. “So anytime you’re a starting running back, of course you want to get over 1,000 yards.”
It’s not just the running back, though.