|Will Chris Johnson be more the back of 2010 or the one who struggled in 2011? (AP)|
No, he really did.
"I put myself in the same category as LeBron," Johnson said here after a combined practice with the Atlanta Falcons last week. "LeBron had so much success, and then not winning a championship and having a little bit of a down year, he came back and quieted the critics. This is my year to come back and quiet the critics."
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Johnson was embroiled in a contract dispute that kept him out the entire preseason in 2011 before finally landing a new deal the week before the team's opener. He wasn't in football shape and he didn't look anything like the runner who ran for 2,006 yards in 2009.
There was talk he was tentative. There was talk he was complacent with the new deal. He had one 100-yard game in his first eight of 2011, adding to the heat.
The reality is that there were a lot of variables that went into his down season -- first and foremost was the inability of the middle of the line to get push.
A study of his tapes early in the season show a back who had a lot of defenders around his feet as he took handoffs. This is a runner who needs room to get going -- a speedy, gliding back.
"The people who say those [bad] things about me don't know football," Johnsons said. "I wasn't tipping [tip-toeing] in the hole. There were people around me. There were reasons."
He admits he was a big part of it.
"I can't just not do anything and get out there and do my thing," he said of his offseason work. "It humbled me a bit. I thought I could do that. I thought I could just show up for the first game and be the same "CJ2K." But I can't do that. I am trying to make it back to the CJ2K. I am the same guy. I just went through some obstacles."
He came on in the second half of the season, finishing with 1,047 yards. But he had just one carry of 40 yards or more. He had seven in 2009.
Johnson spent this offseason working out in Nashville at the team facility, a first in his career. He appears stronger and when he ran during the work against the Falcons something stood out.
He was gliding again. A speed back like Johnson loves to get to the corner and when he does he seems to almost lean over like a motorcycle taking a curve.
That's how I know he's back. That's how I know he's ready for a big year again.
The Titans are better inside with the signing of guard Steve Hutchinson, and even though they have a quarterback battle raging in camp, Johnson should be back to ripping off long runs again.
"It was a tough year," Johnson said. "Going through everything I went through. I can count six times where I went into half with four or five carries. That never happened before. I think it's because he [offensive coordinator Chris Palmer] didn't know the type of player I am."
"I'm pretty sure he knows now," Johnson said showing off his rows of gold teeth. "He should."
• Decide on a quarterback. Who is it going to be? The veteran in Matt Hasselbeck, who played well last season, or Jake Locker, the second-year player who is the future of this franchise? Both have had good camps so the decision is a tough one. Asante Samuel jumped a Hasselbeck out pass during some work I watched against the Falcons. But he did some good things. Locker looked better than I expected. He seemed to have a command of the offense and the ball flies off his arm. It's a tough call.
• Solidify the interior of the offensive line. The signing of Hutchinson will help the run game, but losing center Eugene Amano for the season with a torn triceps muscle is a bit of a hit. Fernando Velasco is the starter for now. Right guard Leroy Harris moves over from the left side, but he struggled on the left side and has to play better.
• Improve the pass rush. The Titans were good enough knocking down the quarterback last year. That’s why they went out and got defensive end Kamerion Wimbley as a free agent. He has been an effective edge rusher at times in his career, but had just seven sacks last season. He needs to be better than that. They also need more from Derrick Morgan, a first-round pick in 2009.
• Quarterback: I mentioned it up higher, but what I didn't say is this: What does the team gain by playing Hasselbeck? Are they a contender? No. So get on with it and play Locker. It's his time. Why wait?
Projected winner: Locker. He has too much talent to sit.
• Nickel corner: The Titans lost Cortland Finnegan to the Rams in free agency, which means Alterraun Verner is moving up to starting corner with Jason McCourty. Tommie Campbell is the leader right now to join them in the nickel defense. He is a big corner at 6-3, 210 pounds. Ryan Mouton, a third-round pick in 2009, and Chris Hawkins are also in the mix.
Projected winner: Campbell. It's hard to argue against his athletic ability.
• Starting receiver: With Kenny Britt potentially facing a suspension and coming off knee surgery, the Titans need to find a receiver to start opposite Nate Washington. Damian Williams has been having a good camp, but first-round pick Kendall Wright is explosive. Both players will get on the field, but who starts?
Projected winner: Wright. They used a first-round pick on him for a reason.
Somebody to Watch
Jared Cook has the ability to be a premier pass-catching tight end. But he has to put it all together. Cook, now in his fourth season, had a career-high 49 catches last season. But it's the 15.5 per-catch average that is so impressive. He also had an 80-yard touchdown catch. That shows his athletic ability. I look for a huge year from Cook, who impressed on the day I watched him practice.
• Britt. In addition to possible league sanctions, he is coming off knee surgery. When he will be ready nobody knows.
• Amano. Losing him might not be as big a deal if Velasco can help liven up the run game.
The Last Word
The Titans shocked a lot of people by going 9-7 in 2011. It was a heck of a job by first-year coach Mike Munchak.
The Titans have a lot of young talent, but it all goes to the quarterback position. Do they get on with the future and play Locker or hope they can sneak into the playoffs again by playing Hasselbeck?
There are some issues that need to play out at other spots, including improving the pass rush and solidifying the secondary.
The Titans, if they play Locker, might be taking a little step back to improve the future. This looks to be another team that can be ready to do bigger things in 2013.