Ezekiel Elliott gets all the hype, and as a rookie on an 11-1 team who leads the NFL in rushing, he deserves every bit of it. But Elliott isn’t the most prolific running back in the NFL this season. That honor belongs to David Johnson, a second-year player out of Northern Iowa (an FCS — the old Division I-AA — team) who was the seventh running back taken in the 2015 draft and plays for a sub-.500 team known for its defense. Yeah, that David Johnson.
On Sunday, Johnson led Arizona to a season-saving win over Washington, running for 84 yards, gaining 91 yards through the air and scoring a touchdown both ways. He became the first player since Edgerrin James in 2005 to gain more than 100 yards from scrimmage in each of his first 12 games of the year. That made him just the third man to ever start a season that way (Barry Sanders was the other) and the 12th man in NFL history to have a streak that long at any time. (Marcus Allen holds the record with 17 straight 100-plus-yard games in 1985-86.)
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So it should come as no surprise that Johnson leads the NFL in yards from scrimmage with 1,709 to Elliott’s 1,607. He’s caught 64 balls, the most for any back. (Le’Veon Bell actually has the most yards per game with 146, just ahead of Johnson’s 142, but the Steelers back missed the first three games of the year because of a suspension.) Johnson is on pace for 1,340 yards on the ground, 939 through the air and 85 catches — the total yardage would be on the fringe of one of the 10 best seasons in NFL history. And though his receiving yards are slightly off the pace, Johnson has a legitimate chance to join Roger Craig and Marshall Faulk as the only players to ever have 1,000 yards rushing and receiving in the same season.
Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer says Johnson is the best player in the league "point blank." Arizona receiver Larry Fitzgerald says he’s the MVP. Though hardly neutral observers, that’s high praise from two respected NFL veterans. In addition to the stats and streaks from above, you could pick a slew of excellent ones from a long list: Only Faulk can also boast 1,000 yards rushing and 700 yards receiving through the first 12 games of the season. Johnson is on pace for 20 touchdowns. He’s one of two players in the NFL to have a three-game streak of seven catches and a receiving TD. Through his first 12 games of 2016, Johnson has more fantasy football points than any running back did in 2015. Johnson has started only 17 games in his career and has 100-plus yards from scrimmage in 16 of them. But the most impressive thing is one that’s not quantifiable: Johnson is doing this with a lot less help than Elliott and Bell.
The Cowboys rookie has Dak Prescott and Dez Bryant drawing plenty of defensive attention and the Dallas offensive line to run behind. Nobody can stuff the box to stop Bell or else Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown will pick you apart for 60 minutes. That’s no disrespect to either player — they’re part of a reciprocal unit (Prescott’s success goes hand-in-hand with Elliott’s and you don’t mention Brown without eventually getting to Bell). Johnson has Palmer and one of the best receivers to ever play the game in Fitzgerald, but both are well past their prime. As much as any one player can ever do anything alone in the NFL, Johnson is largely flying solo.
Former Redskins offensive line coach Joe Bugel (of Hogs fame) used to say that the best running play was one the defense knew was coming but was powerless to stop. The Cardinals, holding a one-point lead on Sunday, were at their own 34-yard line with 3:47 left, facing a fourth-and-1. In one of the gutsiest calls of the season, Bruce Arians opted to go for it. Everybody on the field, in the stands and watching at home knew who was getting the ball and where he’d be running with it. David Johnson, of course, took the handoff and ran 14 yards up the middle, getting a first down that led to a touchdown and an eventual eight-point win.
They knew where it was going, but nobody could stop David Johnson.