Turner, Johnson exemplify short RB shelf life

BY foxsports • September 20, 2012

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — It's been a rough start to the season for two of the most productive running backs in the NFL over the last five seasons, Atlanta's Michael Turner and Tennessee's Chris Johnson.

Between 2008 and 2011, no running back gained more rushing yards than Johnson's 5,645 — a crown, at this rate, that he'll have trouble keeping on his head when the 2012 season has ended.

For his part, Turner has made two All-Pro teams but a third trip is in no way in the offing if current trends continue. Adding to Turner's on-field woes, he was arrested early on Tuesday morning on suspicion of DUI following the Falcons' 27-21 victory over Denver.

Neither player has surpassed the 100-yard mark — and that's for the season. While there might be mitigating factors, the signs are ominous for both players and reinforce the trend that running backs wear out about as fast as a set of new tires. Accordingly, teams ought to be wary of devoting key resources — whether big contracts that eat up salary cap space or high-round picks — to running backs. Even with the 2011 league's rushing champion, Jacksonville resisted the holdout of Maurice Jones-Drew, and, in seeing what others are going through, might end up as a wise decision.

After 32 yards on 11 carries in Week 1, Turner added 42 to that total on 17 carries on Monday — and he needed an important 15-yarder late in the game to finish at that mark. He's averaging 2.6 yards per carry.

But he's 30 years old, in the final year of his contract, and the Falcons have gotten excellent value for the six-year, $34.5 million contract they awarded him in 2008 — until now. Despite the compact 5-foot-10, 247-pound build that has served him well, Turner's 1,189 carries over the past four seasons might have finally taken their toll, along with a new offensive philosophy which has less of an emphasis on the run.

On Wednesday, numerous Falcons pledged their faith in Turner's ability to run the ball.

"He's proven in the past he's consistent, and we've been consistent in the run game," Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said. ". . . Just for whatever reason, we haven't gotten (the running game) going yet, but I'm confident we will. I think we've got the right guys, the right offensive linemen, the right running backs to do it."

For his part, Turner, on a day when he was not in a particularly expansive mood to discuss his shortcomings on the field as he spent most of it talking about those off of it, did not express worry.

"I just want to go out there and play hard, play for my friends, play for my teammates and just do everything I can to help this team win," he said.

More worrisome, perhaps from a financial perspective, is Johnson, whose contract averages $13.4 million, but his average yards-per-carry is just 1.1. The past three seasons his year-ending rushing totals have dwindled from 2,006 to 1,364 to 1,047. His yards per carry have shrunk from 5.6 to 4.3 to 4.0.

Last year, his performance was aggravated by his long holdout, but the team still won nine games and missed the playoffs by a single win. This season, the Titans have struggled to do much of anything well — offensively or defensively — and sit at 0-2. First-year starting quarterback Jake Locker hasn't helped much in the passing game, as Locker currently ranks 25th in the NFL with a 77.6 rating, and he has committed turnovers early in games that have helped to put the Titans in a hole, which in turn, have made it harder to run the ball.

For now, Johnson is at a loss to explain his lack of production. He also faced struggles last season, as 55 percent of his yards came in four games, and the other 12 were games featured limited production with an average of 39.4 yards per game. Johnson said that last Sunday's game took on a similar feel to ‘11.

"Don't really know what's going on," he said in a video posted on the team Web site. "Don't know how we're going to fix it or whatever. We still got to continue to work hard and hopefully something happens."

He added: "Can't get the running game going, can't get no yards no matter what we do, so I don't know at this point."

Johnson's four-year extension guarantees him $30 million, which would exact a substantial salary cap hit if the Titans elected to part ways with him after this season.

Turner and Johnson might well both turn things around, but if they do, they will be swimming against the tide.