Kansas City Chiefs running back Larry Johnson skyrocketed to stud status three seasons ago, dazzling everyone with some jaw-dropping production. Johnson’s 2005 numbers – 2,093 total yards and 21 total touchdowns – were especially impressive, because he had started for just half the season in relief of injured running back Priest Holmes (retired). Starting a full 16-game regular season for the first time in his pro career, Johnson exploded again in 2006, amassing 2,199 total yards and 19 total touchdowns.
Johnson’s past success made his 2007 campaign appear all the more catastrophic to fantasy owners. Playing in just eight games – he missed the second half of the year with a broken bone in his right foot – Johnson amassed 559 rushing yards, a career-worst 3.54 yards per carry, three rushing touchdowns, 30 receptions, 186 receiving yards and one receiving touchdown. The five-year National Football League veteran had topped the 100-yard rushing mark and scored in three games but was held under 60 yards rushing and did not score in five outings. In case you’ve forgotten, the Chiefs went winless without Johnson in the lineup, compiling an embarrassing 4-12 record and netting last place in the AFC West.
Why Did Johnson Struggle?
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out why Johnson floundered during his injury-shortened 2007 season; he was the classic example of a great player trapped in an inept offense. Even when Johnson played, the Chiefs offense rarely found a consistent rhythm due to poor offensive line play and an erratic passing game. This is why enemy defenses comfortably stacked seven and sometimes eight men near the line of scrimmage, successfully containing Johnson more times than not.
Once recognized as the heartbeat of the prolific Dick Vermeil/Al Saunders rushing attack, the O-line had deteriorated into a mere shell of its self due to retirements, age and unfavorable personnel shakeups. The unit struggled mightily with run-blocking, as evidenced by Johnson’s statistics and by Kansas City averaging a miserable 3.3 yards per carry as a team. The O-line also struggled horribly in pass protection, surrendering a whopping 55 sacks and making it nearly impossible at times for either veteran quarterback Damon Huard (4-6 as a starter last season) or young quarterback Brodie Croyle (0-6 as a starter last season) to direct a consistent, effective passing attack that could keep opposing defenses from ganging up on Johnson. Although veteran tight end Tony Gonzalez and up-and-coming wide receiver Dwayne Bowe are bona fide starters, they were not capable of regularly drawing defensive attention away from Johnson. The offense also lacked a speedy receiver who was capable of stretching the field.
How Much Criticism Does Mike Solari Deserve?
Kansas City fans have viciously vilified former offensive coordinator Mike Solari for Johnson’s 2007 struggles and for the abrupt collapse of an offense that had ranked among the top units in the league just three years ago. When Solari took over, the Chiefs offense had closed out 2005 ranked No. 1 overall (387.0 total yards per game), No. 4 in rushing (148.9 rushing yards per game), No. 6 in passing (238.1 passing yards per game) and No. 6 in scoring (25.2 points per game). At the end of 2007, Solari’s beleaguered unit finished No. 31 overall (276.8 total yards per game), No. 32 in rushing (league-low 78.0 rushing yards per game), No. 20 in passing (198.8 passing yards per game) and No. 31 in scoring (franchise-low 226 points/14.1 points per game). Solari was criticized fairly and sometimes unfairly for his unimaginative, conservative game plans and for his struggles with making in-game scheme adjustments. Nevertheless, Kansas City’s offensive woes were more related to the aforementioned personnel issues than scheme. Johnson had enjoyed a super-productive 2006 season with Solari calling the shots, which has been forgotten by some.
Offseason Changes That Impact Johnson
As expected, the offense was one of the focal points of the club’s major offseason personnel overhaul. The last mainstays of the O-line from the Vermeil/Saunders era – center Casey Wiegmann (left via free agency) and guard/tackle John Welbourn (released) – have departed. Kansas City drafted guard/tackle Branden Albert (the No. 15 overall pick in the 2007 draft), and it looks like they will start him at left tackle and move mediocre tackle Damion McIntosh to the right side. Left guard Brian Waters, center Rudy Niswanger and right guard Adrian Jones are not top talents, but they are all penciled in as starters heading into training camp. Personnel shakeups involving Waters, Niswanger and Jones are possible before or during the regular season.
There are some new faces at the skill positions. Rookie running back Jamaal Charles (third-round pick) is a finesse back, but he has the home-run speed that the Kansas City backfield lacks – no disrespect intended toward Johnson. Charles is expected to beat running back Kolby Smith out for the No. 2 runner spot. Looking at the wide receiver corps, the team signed unremarkable free-agent wide receiver Devard Darling, but the wideout to watch is Will Franklin (fourth-round pick). Franklin, a speed merchant, could develop into the deep-threat that the Chiefs desperately need to stretch the field and open up running lanes underneath for Johnson.
Solari was fired and replaced by former Georgia Tech and NFL assistant Chan Gailey, who plans to install a balanced attack that uses the run to set up big plays in the passing game. Kansas City head coach Herman Edwards still loves his power-running attack, but he admits the Chiefs need the ability to run a “fast-break offense” when necessary.
Johnson’s 2008 Fantasy Forecast
Heading into the new season, there are more negatives about Johnson than positives. Last year, he was trapped in an impotent offense; this year, Johnson will be mired in an offense that is in full rebuilding mode. The Chiefs will try to save some wear and tear on him by giving a small number of regular touches to the explosive Charles. Historically, it usually takes at least half a season for a re-tooled offensive line to jell – assuming there are no major lineup changes. The O-line, however, currently looks soft in the middle and still rates as below-average overall. It also takes a minimum of eight games for players to become comfortable in a new offensive scheme. There are major concerns about whether Croyle – or whoever ends up starting – can generate an effective passing game to support Johnson.
On the positive side, Johnson’s foot injury has healed – supposedly. The club is expected to use a more balanced attack to keep enemy defenses from focusing solely on him. Johnson will face just two matchups against top-10 run defenses from last season. Five other matchups are versus run defenses that were ranked average or slightly below-average and nine matchups are against bottom-10 run defenses. Although he will share touches, Johnson will still receive more than enough action to maintain his stud status. Although the former Penn State product will turn 29 years old in November, Johnson still has many productive years left, because he sat behind Holmes for a few seasons. The addition of Albert to the O-line is obviously an instant upgrade.
Despite the legitimate concerns that make Johnson a risky draft choice, fantasy owners will still probably select him in the lower part of the first round or the early part of the second round in most re-draft league formats based on his obvious talent and stud status. However, it’s fair to say that we won’t see any 2005/2006 mega-numbers from Johnson again anytime soon.
If you choose Johnson, you’ll need to be patient. Although he is playing an overall soft schedule, all signs point to him struggling and posting No. 2 fantasy back numbers – especially during the first half of the season.
How would Johnson’s 2007 numbers have looked if he had played the entire season? Projecting his half-season stats over a 16-game schedule for a rough estimate, you get 316 carries, 1,118 rushing yards, six rushing touchdowns, 60 receptions, 372 receiving yards and two receiving touchdowns. Using the numbers as a yardstick to help make a 2008 forecast, Johnson’s carries, receptions and receiving yards will likely be lower than the 2007 projections. His rushing yardage and touchdown total, however, should be higher than the 2007 projections. Johnson’s rushing yardage should increase by at least 350 yards and his touchdown total should spike into double-digits.