David Johnson had done this so many times before. Galloping into the end zone was hardly novel. It was, in fact, the 59th time he'd hit pay dirt in an NFL game.
But this one was different.
You could sense it watching on your couch. Johnson, whose struggles since becoming one of the most dynamic running backs in the league have been well chronicled, seemed suddenly unbridled by his past. Finally. Watching him score the first touchdown of the 2020 NFL season last Thursday, and his first for any team other than the Arizona Cardinals, seemed cathartic to the former All Pro. It felt like, to me, a release or a rebirth for him.
He was healthy. He was productive. He felt wanted again, with the Texans acquiring him in a blockbuster trade that included future Hall of Fame receiver DeAndre Hopkins going to Arizona. And at age 28, after what amounted to three lost seasons with the Cardinals, Johnson knows that his NFL journey is far from over. He appears ready, both mentally and physically, to get back to the heights he attained in the first two years of his career (in 2015-2016, if you recall, he scored 32 total touchdowns in his first 32 games).
Johnson on Thursday night seemed unburdened of so much -- injury concerns; his old Cardinals contract that became a constant topic of conversation in Arizona; the season-ending surgery that ended his 2017 campaign after one game; his last three years, where he averaged just 3.69 yards per carry with 16 touchdowns in 30 games. I thought perhaps I was reading too much into that touchdown, and Johnson's reaction to it.
Turns out I was reading it just right.
"You are definitely correct -- it was definitely a sense of release," Johnson told me. "Especially with being the first (touchdown) of the whole NFL season and with everything going on, for me to get that, it showcased that I still have it when there were still so many doubters out there and so many people talking about the trade and everything. So just to be back out there and do what I did in that game, it definitely just really, hopefully, put everyone on notice that I didn't go anywhere. And I'm back now."
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It certainly got the attention of the Baltimore Ravens, Houston's Week 2 opponent. And given the issues with the Texans defense, dating back to last season, and the fact the receiving group clearly is not what it was when Hopkins led them, one would expect Johnson to be relied on heavily moving forward. Playing a ball control offense and protecting Deshaun Watson, who has already suffered multiple ACL injuries, would seem to make the most sense for this ball club. Baltimore's run defense was its undoing last season and was exploited early by the Browns last week until the score got out of hand and Cleveland had to abandon it. Oh, and despite the Texans collecting a bunch of running backs, an ankle injury to Duke Johnson in the opener would seem to provide even more opportunity for David Johnson on all three downs.
Johnson shined brightly last week, amassing over 100 combined yards in what would become a blowout loss to Kansas City, including 77 on the ground on just seven carries. That workload stands to increase, for sure, and keep in mind that changing teams in a virtual offseason in which there was not a single preseason game played was also suboptimal. Getting into the regular season routine should only help.
"I think I'm closer to finally being where I want to be," Johnson said on my radio show, Inside Access, on 105.7 The Fan in Baltimore, "but I still have a lot of stuff to iron out. And that was really our first game, and for me that was really my first game going through tackles with no preseason games, and I feel like I've got more room to improve. But it's definitely in the right direction."
Consider that it was just a few short years ago when Johnson was being viewed as a popular first-overall pick in fantasy drafts. His rapid rise from relative obscurity at Northern Iowa to third-round pick to NFL superstar happened with much haste. Then came the wrist injury in the 2017 opener that ended his season, then in 2018 he was a part of a Cardinals offense that was historically bad (with the coordinator fired midseason and Johnson used far too often running up the middle rather than out in space, where he is so explosive).
By 2019 his future in Arizona was already in doubt, and rookie head coach Kliff Kingsbury had his own very strong ideas about personnel that fit his scheme. Johnson would end up starting just nine games last year -- still stuck behind an offensive line that was suspect throughout his Cardinals tenure -- with Kenyan Drake soaring for Kingsbury after being acquired from Miami while Johnson was injured.
Clearly, it was time for a change both personally and professionally, and Johnson has embraced it.
"Fresh start, clean slate," Johnson said (you can hear the entire interview here). "I couldn't be more excited and more grateful for Bill (O'Brien, Texans head coach) and for Jack (Easterby, team president) to come out and get me, for the trade. And, like you said, man, it's been rough. I never had to deal with any type of couple of seasons the way it's gone the past couple of years.
"Even with the turnover of the coaches and everything like that, now that I'm here with a great organization and a great offense, especially with Deshaun being our head guy. He's a great quarterback and playing with these guys, and my teammates, I am definitely thrilled and excited to be here."
There were definitely dark days in the past three years for Johnson. It's hard not to feel like a commodity -- You cost me my fantasy season! You take up too much cap space! -- and to remain connected to your teammates and organization as you try to recover from injuries detached from the group. Johnson has grown from all of the adversity.
"To hear all of that in the media, or to hear people belittling you and talking down on you, it's very tough," Johnson said. "And for me, I am so blessed to have the support system that I do have to get me through those tough four years. And like you said, I think a lot of people don't understand what football players go through -- they only see the game; they don't see the daily grind that we have to go through ...
"When I was injured, man, I didn't even feel like I was part of the team and ... the team and the players try to make that injured player, like myself, feel included. But when you're not scouting and you're not preparing for a team or a game, and you're not on the field, it's a different story. You're really just being a spectator, and people don't understand that we've devoted our life really to playing football. And for us to be here following our dream, it doesn't help when people are talking bad. And they don't understand what you have to go through and that daily struggle to try to keep your confidence up at times when you're going through injuries or going through different coaches and stuff like that."
Johnson has been an easy player to root for throughout his career. And, perhaps in some ways, even easier to root for now. He certainly deserved a second chance, and now that it's arrived, with a franchise that -- unlike his previous one -- has made a habit out of reaching the postseason, we might see much more of Johnson in the end zone this year, and for years to come.