If you're a fan of the Tennessee Titans, or if you've had him on a fantasy roster in the last couple of seasons, you're well aware of how frustrating Chris Johnson can be. The player who once was a holding penalty away from potentially breaking the NFL's rushing record, Johnson has spent the last several years as a mediocre threat at best.
No team has done more to try and improve their running game during this offseason than Tennessee. Will the massive investments they've made pay off, or will 2013 be the same old story for Johnson and the Titans?
Ever since Johnson's production began to decline, there's been great debate as to whether or not the problem was the running back or the blocking in front of him. The Titans left little doubt as to what they felt the problem was. With the big ticket additions of guards Andy Levitre and Chance Warmack, another potential starter in center Brian Schwenke, a new running backs coach (Sylvester Croom) and a legitimate option to help spell Johnson (Shonn Greene), it's clear that Tennessee felt the biggest issues were in the supporting cast.
That conclusion is hard to argue with, at least to some degree. Watching almost any game tape from 2012 quickly reveals that the interior of Tennessee's offensive line was one of the league's worst. Johnson certainly looked indecisive and appeared to give up on plays – but when there's no hole to run through in the first place that becomes a little more forgivable.
The Titans devoted over $50 million dollars and two draft picks, including their first round selection, to try and solve that problem. Levitre is one of the more highly regarded left guards in the league, and although he's typically considered to be a better pass blocking player than a run blocker, he's still a tremendous upgrade over the Titans have had to work with previously. Warmack, who appeared desperate to be selected by Tennessee in the first place, will also be a big improvement at the right guard position. If Schwenke can win the competition for the starting center spot during training camp, it'd result in three out of five starters on the line being replaced just one offseason.
Tennessee didn't just settle with making offensive line improvements. Johnson's most productive years came when he was sharing carries with LenDale White. The Titans got away from that formula in more recent seasons, but with the addition Greene it appears as though that Johnson will again be getting more chances to catch his breath in 2013. While signing Greene specifically was a questionable call, as there were better and cheaper options available via free agency and the draft, the philosophy behind it is hard to argue with. White was a below average running back and was still able to compliment Johnson. Greene, while he's one of the worst starting backs in the league, should be able to at least provide the same production that White did years ago.
With those big investments, as well as shift to a run first philosophy on offense, Johnson will have no excuses in 2013 as he has in the past. Does he still have the talent to live up to those types of expectations? It does appear to be the case. Even after starting the year with just 45 yards rushing in his first three games, he still managed to finish the year with a 4.5 yards per carry average. He had seven games with 90 or more yards rushing, and flashed the big play potential that made him a household name years ago.
It remains to be seen if such a run oriented attack will result in wins for the team as a whole. However, there should be little doubt that Chris Johnson will be returning to form in 2013. There are few running backs that will have a better situation to produce in. If he can't put up big numbers this year, it'll be a sure sign that his career as a starting running back is over.