GLENDALE, Ariz. — Imagine if Chris Johnson had gone ahead and called it quits.
“Oh, man,” Johnson said, rolling his eyes with a smile. “I don’t know. It would be a situation where, heck, it probably would be a crisis right about now.”
Yeah, for him and for the Cardinals.
Here he is, second in the NFL with 567 rushing yards after gaining 122 during Monday night’s 26-18 great escape over the visiting Baltimore Ravens, and if the Cardinals didn’t have Johnson, they probably don’t win this game. They’re probably not 5-2 and sitting pretty atop the NFC West.
They also wouldn’t have the franchise’s fastest, most lethal and most legitimate running back since Terry Metcalf back in the 1970s. And Metcalf wasn’t even a workhorse. He was more of a gadget guy with big-play explosiveness.
Think about it. Since when have the Cardinals ever had a running back like this? Ottis Anderson and Stump Mitchell were nice. Edgerrin James and Johnny Johnson had a couple of decent seasons. But they’re no Chris Johnson and neither, of course, were all the short-term supposed saviors over the years such as Garrison Hearst, Thomas Jones and Beanie Wells.
And to think, the Cardinals almost never got a chance to sign him – even when nobody else in the NFL had any desire to.
“I didn’t know what I was going to do,” Johnson said, surrounded by reporters and cameras in the victors’ locker room. “I mean, going from playing seven years straight to not knowing what my next move was going to be, not knowing what my next situation was going to be.
“It was everything, man. It was me contemplating retirement and not getting any calls. Me being hurt. Me having to work so hard just to get back. And my hands on top of that – not being able to use my hand for about three months. There was just a lot going into it.”
That can happen when you get shot in the right shoulder during a drive-by and watch your career flash before your eyes. That’s what happened to Johnson this past spring and you don’t know how close he came to hanging it up unless you’re close enough to look him square in the eyes while he talks about it.
“But I stuck with it,” he said. “I kept praying and it turned out to be the best.”
It also turned out to be perhaps the best free-agent signing any team has made this year.
Johnson, after all, is averaging 5.10 yards per carry. He’s also broke a staggering 15 runs of 10 or more yards, including two pretty huge ones against the Ravens that changed the complexion of the game.
The first one came in the opening quarter during Arizona’s second possession when Johnson started running right, started to get gobbled up in traffic, and then changed directions and sprinted away to his left. Breaking at least two tackles, he flipped on the afterburners and sped his way to a 26-yard, electrifying touchdown.
“Once I saw John Brown down the field giving me a block, I knew I could get into the end zone,” he said.
Then in the third quarter, with the Cardinals nursing a pedestrian 17-10 lead against a Baltimore team with one victory to its credit, Johnson had another hyperspace effort. He took a handoff and again, looked like he was about to get stopped.
Instead, he wound up rolling over the back of Ravens defensive tackle Brandon Williams, his knees never touching the grass. Johnson sat up, popped to his feet and took off like a bat out of hell. He was gone for a 62-yard run, finally being brought down at the 8-yard line.
“I thought the ref was going to blow the whistle,” Johnson said. “And then when he didn’t blow the whistle, I just shot out of there.”
Asked which he run he liked best, Johnson said it was the touchdown.
“Because, you know, I’m known for my speed and I showed it right there. And some power, too.”
Johnson’s arrival and ability to make it look as though he’s returned to the form that once saw him rush for 2,000 yards with the Tennessee Titans is almost making Andre Ellington look obsolete. But just when you think that, Bruce Arians puts Ellington into the game and the third-year pro responds with some significant production in the fourth quarter while Johnson gets some well-deserved rest.
“He was as fresh as a daisy,” Arians said of Ellington. “He made good runs. He made big catches for us. It’s nice to put a fresh, explosive player in the game in the fourth quarter.”
It’s even nicer when you already have a still-explosive weapon in a running back like Johnson, who joined Ricky Watters as the only two players to ever record 100-yard rushing games for three different teams on “Monday Night Football.”
“I love Monday night,” Johnson said, flashing his golden-teeth smile. “You got everybody around the world watching. … It’s like a different energy when you play on Monday night.”
It’s getting to the point where the Cardinals have to start thinking about when they’re going to have to offer Johnson a contract extension. He’s signed through only this year, after all.
“Yeah, I ain’t thinking about that right now,” Johnson said. “I’m just playing football, trying to win.”
Has his agent been thinking about it?
“Nah,” Johnson said.
Well, they should. Everyone should. Just imagine where they’d all be had Johnson decided to call it quits.
McManaman writes for The Arizona Republic
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