Don't Let Johnson Get Carried Away


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Jan 22, 2006
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Don't Let Johnson Get Carried Away
Jun 29, 2006, 3:54:20 AM by Jonathan Rand

Larry Johnson changed his jersey number from 34 to 27 after his rookie season. If NFL rules permitted, Johnson could replace his number with a bull’s-eye to remind himself he’ll be the primary target of every defense the Chiefs face this season.

Tune into your favorite sports station, log on to an NFL web site, read publications covering the NFL or talk to a fantasy footballer and what you get is all-LJ, all the time. Johnson just may be the most visible NFL star who hasn’t fallen off a motorcycle.

Chiefs’ opponents won’t need to see any more Johnson highlights to know he’s the main man they have to stop. Not only did he finish 2005 with nine straight 100-yard games, but coach Herman Edwards says plans to run the ball even more to keep his defense, still a work in progress, off the field.

The Chiefs have, amazingly, been able to replace Priest Holmes, one of the NFL’s elite backs, with another elite back. But the supply of these fellas is not endless and it would tremendously benefit the Chiefs to get Johnson a longer heyday than Holmes enjoyed.

Edwards would be better off trying to manage Johnson’s workload than letting him fixate on topping 2,000 yards. Johnson, 26, is the Chiefs’ only offensive star under 30 and they can’t afford to use him up before his time.

Holmes was 27 when he signed with the Chiefs as a free agent and was an immediate sensation as he rushed for 1,555 yards and eight touchdowns in 2001. But he had 327 carries and 62 catches, which meant an average of 24 chances a game to get his bell rung or knees rattled. And while that may not seem like an overbearing workload, tell that to a running back when he’s trying to get out of bed Monday morning.

Though Johnson didn’t become the Chiefs’ starter last year until the eighth game, he totaled 336 carries, just 34 fewer than league leader Shaun Alexander of Seattle and more carries than Holmes has totaled in a season. That kind of workload over a full season could run Johnson into the ground, especially since the Chiefs have lost fullback Tony Richardson, their exceptional lead blocker.

It didn’t take long for Holmes’ heavy workload to make a lot of Chiefs-watchers nervous, especially when he suffered a hip injury late in 2002. That injury was enough of a threat to his career that the Chiefs drafted Johnson rather than fill a glaring defensive need.

Holmes bounced back in 2003 to complete one of the best three-year stretches for any running back in NFL history. But he hasn’t lasted more than half a season since, and the Chiefs still don’t know if he’ll be able to return from his spinal injury.

Holmes’ return would give the Chiefs a top-notch backup to Johnson and create a situation that would help both stay healthy. That probably would leave them both unhappy, but running backs often need protection from themselves.

Running backs don’t like to leave carries on the table. They figure it’s their job to run the ball, and they know they’ll be measured by their yardage. The younger backs feel indestructible and most backs consider it a sign of weakness to ask for a lighter workload. Besides, who wants to give a reserve the chance to step in and take his job?

So it should have come as no surprise when Holmes declared he didn’t want a lighter workload, even as Johnson stewed on the bench. And Johnson, after waiting impatiently for more than two seasons to start, isn’t going to be requesting any rest after running for 1,750 yards, a Chiefs single-season record, and 20 touchdowns.

Johnson, however, takes plenty of punishment. At 6 feet, 1 and 230, he’s four inches taller and 20 pounds heavier than Holmes, but he’s often just as happy to run over a defender as around him. That running style eventually will take its toll.

That’s why the Chiefs better have a backup they can trust for eight to 10 carries a game. And why Holmes, if healthy, can still play an awfully important role.

The opinions offered in this column do not necessarily reflect those of the Kansas City Chiefs.
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