By Chuck Cavalaris
Make no mistake about it, Chris Johnson knows how to keep a secret.
The Tennessee Titans running back revealed in a text message in late January that he suffered a torn meniscus in a Sept. 22 game against San Diego.
Johnson continued to keep quiet en route to rushing for 1,077 yards, modest by current NFL standards. He was consistently kept out of the end zone, with just six touchdowns in 16 starts.
After successful surgery by Dr. James Andrews, the 5-foot-11, 203-pound former Pro Bowl running back hopes to be fully recovered in about 4-6 weeks. He also expects to be the most productive running back on the free agent market.
Question: Considering a player previously known as CJ2K for his 2,000 yard rushing prowess was in the final year of an $8 million contract, why risk further injury? After all, the Titans offense was inconsistent and sometimes resembled a pedestrian in the fast lane of I-40 going through Nashville. The line had three new starters, QB Jake Locker had another injury plagued season and backup Ryan Fitzpatrick was turnover prone. The receiving corps did not exactly strike fear in the hearts of opposing DBs.
So, why did Johnson play on?
Here's the most logical answer: It was a contract year. Known for his tweets and clothing line, Johnson said in a text the injury "wasn't a big deal." If anything, he felt he deserved a larger role. As in he needed "to be fed" at least 25 carries a game, along with a few screen passes.
Either way, the 28-year-old speedster with world-class durability appears to have played his last game with the Titans after six seasons. His 3.86 rushing average on 279 carries in 2013 apparently does not translated into roughly $500,000 per game.
"I feel like if they are not going to use me the way I supposed to be used and let me the horse, then I would rather them let me move on," said Johnson, who was often replaced in goal-line situations. "Their money would be wasted on me."
Johnson is virtually certain to get his wish, most likely by spring. Although he also has battled a turf toe injury since college (East Carolina), Johnson has missed just one game in the past five seasons. His production has understandably diminished since 300-plus carries in back-to-back seasons (2009-10), but Johnson still owns the fastest 40 time (4.24, electronically) in NFL combine history.
The arrival of new head coach Ken Whisenhunt and Johnson's refusal to take a pay cut make his return "not likely," according to GM Ruston Webster. The word "overwhelmingly" could be added to the first part of the quote.
It could be tough sledding for Johnson, who resides in Nashville and his hometown in Orlando. He will be 29 in August and with 2,014 career touches, the NFL clock is ticking. The next question could be how many NFL teams are willing to make a major investment in a running back whose numbers have been on the decline.