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anaeelbackwards
08-19-2008, 10:13 PM
Can Larry Johnson get back to being his former self?
By Jim McCormick
Special to ESPN.com


The Chiefs' four wins in 2007 marked their worst record since 1988. Back then, the Nintendo Entertainment System ruled living rooms and Larry Johnson was in third grade. Soon after, though, the team's fortunes improved, thanks in part to the prolific play of Christian "The Nigerian Nightmare" Okoye, out of the powerhouse that is Azusa Pacific. Okoye was a bruising beast of a back who dominated not only "Super Tecmo Bowl," but real and fantasy football as well. Since then, the franchise regularly has turned to a power running game to fuel its offense.

In 2006, the team took this philosophy to extremes, running its offensive engine almost solely on Larry Johnson (http://java%20script:newWin()'s considerable legs. An NFL-record 416 carries that year, a prolonged contract-induced training camp holdout the next summer and a season-ending foot injury eight games into 2007 have cast doubt on whether Johnson can weather another campaign as the team's workhorse.

Fantasy pundits were split heading into last season regarding Johnson's ability to hold up after such a taxing 2006. You had the consensus top two picks, LaDainian Tomlinson (http://java%20script:newWin() and Steven Jackson (http://java%20script:newWin(), and then it was Johnson and a slew of others fighting for the third spot, Joseph Addai (http://java%20script:newWin() chief among them. Last summer's detractors were clearly correct; Johnson's 826 combined touches in '05 and '06, along with the lack of training camp, plus rumors of poor conditioning, proved to set up Johnson and his fantasy faithful for failure.

Even the Chiefs' Web site admits Johnson's tarnished rep. The intro to his bio reads like a fantasy blurb: "Ruggedly intense competitor looks to bounce back from an injury-shortened 2007 and restore his reputation as one of the NFL's most dominant running backs."

So where does this leave Johnson and his fantasy value? ESPN live draft results have him going 14th overall on average, good for 10th among running backs. He has slid roughly 10 spots since 2007, landing anywhere from the late first round to the middle of the second, still a significant investment for fantasy managers to consider. Questions from last summer linger. Can Johnson return to his dominant, ultra-productive ways? Or did the extreme reliance on his frame those two seasons burn him out for good, much like Okoye's tank quickly was emptied by an intense, albeit prolific, stretch?

Most indicators seem to suggest the latter. Johnson's yards per carry have dipped markedly from year to year, from a brilliant 5.2 in '05 to 4.3 in '06 to a pedestrian 3.5 in '07. Even his yards per catch dropped significantly over this period, from 10.4 to 10 to just 6.2 in '07.

Since that legendary 2005 campaign that saw Johnson put up arguably the best nine-game stretch in the history of fantasy (most yards after Nov. 1), K.C.'s offensive talent has shrunk dramatically. The team has embarked on an overwhelming roster overhaul since those vaunted veteran Dick Vermeil teams from the Priest Holmes (http://java%20script:newWin() era. The rebuilding Chiefs now are the youngest team in the NFL. The QB situation has been unsettled since Trent Green (http://java%20script:newWin() departed. More significant to Johnson's effectiveness, the once dominant, Pro Bowl-laden offensive line now is full of unproven prospects and middling journeyman, deteriorating into the worst-ranked unit in the league in 2007. There are some signs, however, that the team has addressed some of these issues this offseason.

Gone is conservative offensive coordinator Mike Solari. New OC Chan Gailey was lured back to the pro ranks and is tailoring an offense and blocking scheme to accentuate Johnson's north-south strengths. The team executed a near total overhaul of the O-line with the oft-injured Kyle Turley (http://java%20script:newWin(), John Welbourn (http://java%20script:newWin(), Casey Wiegmann (http://java%20script:newWin() and Chris Terry (http://java%20script:newWin() all gone. In their places are Damion McIntosh (http://java%20script:newWin(), Branden Albert (http://java%20script:newWin(), Rudy Niswanger (http://java%20script:newWin() and Adrian Jones (http://java%20script:newWin(). In two-tight end sets, the 6-foot-7, pseudo-tackle Brad Cottam (http://java%20script:newWin() will line up as the blocking tight end opposite Tony Gonzalez (http://java%20script:newWin(). No perennial Pro Bowlers here (other than Gonzalez, who has been selected for other reasons), but they are considered to be a more athletic and durable group. The infusion of a new line, scheme and overall philosophy is at least intriguing in regards to Johnson's production potential.



Add these new ingredients to the fact that K.C. beat writers regularly have remarked throughout the offseason the noticeable spring in Johnson's step. It also should be noted that despite a largely disappointing 2007, there are some positive trends. In his first five games, Johnson clearly was working his way into shape, posting a lackluster 275 yards with no touchdowns. The K.C. offense as a unit was significantly struggling, averaging an anemic 12.6 points in those first five games. In the three games before bowing out with a broken foot, however, Johnson was rounding into form. He put up a rushing touchdown in three straight contests while netting 284 yards on the ground, averaging nearly 4 yards per carry to go with 11 catches for 84 yards and a receiving score. In those three promising games, the final of which was cut short by his broken foot, LJ averaged an LJ-like 19 fantasy points in ESPN standard leagues.

With a full training camp and an invigorated, if unproven, offensive line and plenty to prove, a return to fantasy stardom isn't unfathomable for Johnson. ESPN's draft kit projects eight touchdowns and 1,149 rushing yards on 256 carries (a solid 4.5 average) for him this season, roughly 187 fantasy points. The projection for carries seems on the low side, even with the team aiming to lighten the load for him. There's no doubt that backup running backs Kolby Smith (http://java%20script:newWin() and rookie speedster Jamaal Charles (http://java%20script:newWin() should factor in more to help keep Johnson fresh. But consider that Johnson holds the NFL record for most consecutive rushing touchdowns for a team without another scorer on the ground (35). Point being, even when the staff wants to get away from riding the LJ train, it's easier said than done, especially at the goal line.

To specifically answer the question at hand, no, Johnson likely won't return to being the 2,000-yard, 20-TD monster we coveted during those prime years. The lack of a consistently competent passing game makes a return to statistical dominance more improbable than anything else. He will, however, prove to have more than enough left in the tank to post more than 1,500 total yards and double-digit touchdowns, making him worthy of a late first-, early second-round selection.

clutchbowl
08-21-2008, 11:03 PM
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Three7s
08-21-2008, 11:11 PM
Oh boy, another advertiser, lulz.

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Big Daddy Tek
08-22-2008, 02:41 AM
340 carries - 1400 yards - 16 touchdowns. Thats all I got to say

tornadospotter
08-22-2008, 03:18 AM
LJ will be better this year, His O-Line will be better, the offense game plan will be better, and there is a lot of younger talent, ready to take his place, so he will be his angry, run with a chip, this is his year to make his mark on the NFL, his time to step up and show why he is being paid what he is being paid!!! He is going to want to make up for last season.

rbedgood
08-25-2008, 11:22 PM
LJ will have no more than 300 carries, but likely 1200-1300 yards and 12-15 TDs. I figure him to miss 1-2 games due to being knicked up, which will cost him 40-50 carries.