The divorce between Chris Johnson and the Tennessee Titans was looming from the day they cut the cake.
Perhaps the two rushed into their long-term commitment, the Titans flush with affection for their speedy back. Johnson held out ahead of the 2011 season — two years after his gargantuan 2,006-yard 2009 season — and was paid handsomely, the Titans signing him to a four-year, $53.5 million deal.
But Johnson would never repeat the heroics of 2009. Frankly, no one should have expected him to — given that only six other players had ever rushed for 2,000 yards in a season, and that running backs in the modern NFL have the shelf life of off-brand mayonnaise in your garage's broken-down refrigerator.
Nevertheless, the two trudged on in unholy deadlock. They tried to make it work, in pro football's version of marriage counseling, as the Titans made coaching changes and offensive changes and quarterback changes.
Meanwhile, the NFL changed around them. Gone are the honeymoon years when stud running backs were early picks in September fantasy drafts. These days, it's an increasingly pass-happy game — and running backs are minor gears in a complicated machine that can be changed on the fly without an offense missing a beat.
So last week, the Titans bid adieu to the man who was, for a brief moment, the franchise.
It was expected everywhere: Johnson Titans jerseys were already discounted at sporting-goods stores long before the team made his release official. And in most places, it was celebrated. The team had to make a change, had to save the money, and had to cut short a relationship that was destined for an early end from its beginning. Sally Jessy Raphael would've set them straight much sooner.
But for an all-too-short time, Johnson's record speed altered the way teams played the Titans — and to a degree, it changed the entire NFL's perception of what the modern running back should be. Game-breaking speedsters are far more coveted now than the beefy bruisers and durable backs who were standard issue in the old NFL.
The problem is that Johnson was far more feast-or-famine than those who followed him, cast in his mold. And the Titans were never creative enough offensively to find other ways to use his velocity beyond "run off tackle and hope for the best." So off he goes, to the lonely Match.com of free agency.
That said, Johnson could just change the game again. He still has years on his generationally gifted legs. Even if teams are no longer handing out long-term deals to aging backs, Johnson's likely to score a one- or two-year deal somewhere. Minnesota has been mentioned as a possible landing spot, where he'd back up Adrian Peterson, giving the Vikings a potentially vicious claymore of a rushing attack. And then after that, he's likely back on the street.
The balance of his career seems all but destined to be that of a wandering paladin swooping into town for short stints — a simultaneously stabilizing and dazzling force, but not long for any one team.
That task is not unusual in the NFL, or pro sports in general. But mercenaries tend to be much older players or much less talented ones. Theoretically, Johnson could play five or six more seasons — and assuming he'll have a lighter workload than the miner's hours the Titans gave him, perhaps even more. And he may play for another half-dozen teams in that time.
Like an aging slugger who bounces around the American League as a designated hitter long after his body has failed him as a fielder, a lighter-loaded Johnson could provide that one extra little spurt of offense that turns a 7-9 just-missed team into a playoff contender — or that can turn a missing-one-piece 11-5 team into a Super Bowl favorite. He may have enough juice for an occasional game-winner — a sort of gridiron Robert Horry, collecting rings from California to the Gulf Stream waters.
If he can — and if his rotating casts of teams find utility with this speedster of the future — the copycat NFL may look to clone Johnson again. Here's hoping he takes advantage of whatever chance he gets to prove there's only one.
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