Heading into 2014, Tennessee Titans fans are sure they are in for a drastic change. However, the degree of said change may not be fully realized until the season starts. One position that will undergo a total overhaul is that of the running backs.
The Chris Johnson era was ended this offseason when he was released. He ultimately signed with the New York Jets. Subsequently, the Titans drafted University of Washington running back, Bishop Sankey in the second round. This is the only shakeup on the team that can rival the splash made by firing Mike Munchak.
Why? Because it signifies the end of the ground-and-pound (err…smash n’ dash if you will) Titan way.
Since the team’s inception in Nashville, Jeff Fisher built his teams around a strong running game and impenetrable defense. For a while, it worked. But, like most things in life, it ran its course. The NFL evolved, and while the Fisher era teams were, for the most part, always competitive, they lacked the dynamic offense demanded of Super Bowl champions.
Boasting the best record in the AFC in 2008, the Titans were eliminated by the Baltimore Ravens by a score of 13-10. Kerry Collins was the quarterback of the Titans, while then-rookie Joe Flacco led the Ravens. See a difference?
Jeff Fisher’s star was beginning to fade in Nashville. His offense ran through Chris Johnson & LenDale White; his defense was one of the NFL’s best units…..and it still wasn’t enough. Maybe if Chris Johnson’s explosive ability translated to the quarterback position, things would’ve been different.
The Titans relieved Jeff Fisher of his duties after the 2010 season…change for change’s sake. Mike Munchak was named his successor and took over the team, though nothing really changed. The regime drafted Jake Locker in 2011, but still committed to Chris Johnson as the spark plug in the offensive engine.
Here’s the problem: Chris Johnson is solely a playmaker, and yes, that’s a problem for a team that wants to run the ball primarily. With Johnson, his potential home runs kept him on the field, but it also led to a lot of negative plays that stalled drives and killed momentum.
For a running game to work is one thing, for it to be the staple of the offense is another. Places where the running game has been the flagship of the offense have backs named Adrian Peterson and Marshawn Lynch. Chris Johnson simply isn’t that kind of player.
Enter Ken Whisenhunt: the quarterback guru and offensive specialist, the man who coached those aforementioned Arizona Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII.
When you look at some of the running backs that have thrived under Ken Whisenhunt (as coordinator or head coach), you see names like Willie Parker, Edgerrin James, and Ryan Mathews…..versatile, borderline-utility players.
Now, this isn’t to devalue the position, but a running back will mean something totally different for the Titans under Whisenhunt. If you take the time to examine what Ken Whisenhunt’s run schemes look like, you won’t find many trends. Mostly, it’s a combination of several different looks and formations.
All this means that a one-dimensional, straight-line runner won’t be a good fit for the 2014 Titans. The front office saw that and released Chris Johnson. Throughout his career, CJ has been compared to Barry Sanders. While comparisons to perhaps the greatest running back in NFL history are nice, even the great Barry Sanders couldn’t get his Detroit Lions over the hump.
The history of events that led to this decision is important to understand because it can help prepare us all for a statistical drop off. Bishop Sankey ought to be a great player and featured back for the Titans for years to come, but I doubt he’ll ever have the eye-popping stats that Chris Johnson (in his prime) was known for.
When you think Chris Johnson, you think speed. You think explosive plays and home runs. It’s his biggest strength. However, one of his more underrated attributes was his durability and his unwillingness to go down on first contact. Yes, you can acknowledge the negative plays and dancing around in the backfield, but that never meant that he was not a tough runner.
To thrive as a running back under Ken Whisenhunt, you must do several things well. You have to understand how to read a defense, you have to have a strong knowledge of both gap and zone running schemes, you have to catch passes, run routes, and pass protect. How much of that was Chris Johnson truly known for?
Bishop Sankey is just the cog the Titans need for this offense. He’s not nearly as fast as Chris Johnson, but he’s shifty, and he excels in all facets of what is needed in the Whisenhunt offense. He’s been compared to Ray Rice, LeSean McCoy, and Doug Martin.
That’s good company. But, what should all of this mean for 2014?
First of all, Jets fans should be very happy with the addition of Chris Johnson. In an environment where he will be a secondary weapon in a balanced offense as opposed to being the entire backbone of the offense, he will thrive. Running for a coach like Rex Ryan should invigorate him, and the prospect of 1,500 yards and double-digit touchdowns shouldn’t be too unrealistic.
But, the pressure on the field will be replaced by pressure in the press conferences. The New York media could swallow him whole. How he’ll respond to this remains to be seen.
Titans fans should breathe a sigh of relief. The running game will no longer live or die by the big play. Three and outs should now be more about quality of opposing defense, and not the offense’s own blunders.
Bishop Sankey is a high quality back that is a perfect fit for the Titans offense. Should he live up to his potential, he and Ken Whisenhunt will make us all forget about the Chris Johnson era.
This change in philosophy will be good for all parties – the Tennessee Titans, the New York Jets, Chris Johnson, Bishop Sankey, Ken Whisenhunt, and Rex Ryan. It’s hard to find a loser in all of this…..
…..well, then again, there’s Mike Munchak to consider.