If I asked you who the biggest disappointment in the NFL is this year you'd say, without question, Chris Johnson. He's in a timeshare with Javon Ringer, who actually said this week he knows C.J. is the No. 1 guy "for now."
On "NFL Fantasy Live" we're talking about Johnson in the context of whether you even START him considering his lack of production. Did I ever think we'd be at this point this early in Johnson's career (26)? No. But then again, did I ever think I'd see him look like a very thin fullback when he takes the handoff, hits the line of scrimmage, lowers his head with both hands on the football and look for contact? Again, no.
So, how to explain this lack of production? Did he take the money and run? (That would imply he's hanging out with Billy Joe and Bobbie Sue. That would also imply he "ran" with the money, but as we've seen this season, it would be more like a slow trot or a loll). Is it the lockout? Nothing's changed for him on offense -- Mike Munchak, who took over for Jeff Fisher as coach, has been with the team since 1997. The quarterback play is better, the team is winning, so what is it?
Johnson's actually a mad scientist combination of a former stud MLB pitcher and current NBA enigma. That will explain what to expect this year and the rest of his career. And why he'll never be CJ2K again.
Speed up that career arc
As a teenage Mets fan, the sun rose and set with Dwight Gooden, who came up as a heralded rookie in 1984 and was an All-Star. For a team devoid of players of that caliber, he was celebrated immensely. Then, in '85, he had arguably the best season a pitcher has had in the last 30 years -- a 24-4 record with a 1.53 ERA and 268 strikeouts in 276.2 innings. It was freakish. It was a year that came out of Bob Gibson and the higher mound of 1968.
And then what happened? We expected that from Gooden the rest of his career. And while he was still good, he never reached those heights again. He had some very good seasons until he was 26 -- there's that number again -- when he turned into approximately a .500 pitcher for the remainder of his career (63-59 overall). He was never really "The Doc" again. Sure, he had off-the-field issues but bottom line is he stopped producing the same age Johnson is now.
Johnson's career also has had the same arc: A terrific rookie season followed by one for the ages in '09 (2,006 yards, 11-straight 100-yard games). He would hit the corner and he was gone. He was untackleable (yes, a word I made up and I'm hoping it takes off like "Shanahanigans" has). Last year was on par with his rookie season. And now? He's proven my theory that the world is flat, because he's fallen off the face of it.
Sometimes, we just expect too much from someone whose physical skills have hit their peak. Gooden's fastball slowed in '87 (true, his drug problems contributed to this) but physically he was never the same. Johnson relies strictly on his "fastball" -- speed -- and when that's your main asset, you have a short shelf life to begin with.
Johnson's period of inactivity (lockout, holdout, now lights out) has robbed him of his once blazing speed. I get it. He never thought that would happen, because when you're in your mid-twenties you think you're invincible (when I was that age, I actually thought I could still get taller). But the fast twitch muscles that left defenders grasping at air? Gone.
When you don't have confidence in the best part of your game, how are you going to be successful? You're going to stop running laterally because you can't do it. So you run into the middle of the line and get tackled. To think Johnson's suddenly going to rediscover that burst is naïve. Once it goes, it goes. He broke his leg in high school. Neck surgery in college. It all adds up.
You can only hold on to what's left, and that deteriorates year-to-year. Speed up his career arc because that of a star running back is half that of a star pitcher. So he still might have some nice moments now and then, but that guy we could only gape at? He's not coming back. All that's left is to slow the descent.
What does Johnson want to be?
Throughout his NBA career, Lamar Odom has been a conundrum. He has the talent to be a top-five player, and one of the greatest ever. Instead, he's a fantastic sixth-man who has snippets of brilliance but is just as likely to disappear as he is to take over a game. He's won two titles, is a reality show star and generally is regarded as one of the nicest guys in the league. But still, the question remains: Why isn't he better?
Odom shed some light on it last season, when a friend of mine who's a Lakers reporter asked him about his career and why he hasn't accomplished more. And Odom's response was to the effect of, "I think I'm doing pretty well." And he's right. His dad was a heroin addict and his mom died of cancer. He was raised by his grandmother, and made it out of a tough New York City into college and then the NBA. Success is relative to everyone. Odom has achieved, and that's enough for him. Okay. But he could have been a legend.
It's ridiculous to think the money hasn't had an impact on Johnson. Smelling a potential holdout after '09, the Titans gave him $2.5 million to make him happy last season. Then he held out again until signing his $53.5 million deal, including $30 million of it guaranteed, just before the season. He's doing pretty well. It's only natural to reach a pinnacle in your life you never thought you'd get to -- an unattainable goal -- and when you get there, you sit around and take it in for awhile. Everyone does it. Whether it's conscious or not, it happens. You don't have the same drive to work as hard as you did, and you coast a little bit during this time.
Johnson admitted he wasn't close to game shape after his holdout. Some players eventually put their foot back on the pedal when they realize they're falling off because they want to play a long time. Others stay on cruise control until their physical gifts are gone and they leave. Extending one's career is solely on the individual. This is what Johnson needs to decide now. Who does he want to be?
This is a tough decision as he'll never be a 2,000-yard back again, and probably never a 1,500-yard guy. I think even 1,200 is pushing it. Can he still aspire and want and push himself knowing that's his ceiling? Is it worth it for him? Does he have pride? Will he lash out if he's demoted? Will he start running with determination?
He's given away the first eight games of this season. The next eight will tell me everything about the artist formerly known as CJ2K.
See Jason Smith on "NFL Fantasy Live," airing Sundays at 11:30 a.m. ET on the NFL RedZone channel, and Tuesday-Friday on NFL Network at 2 p.m. ET and 12 a.m. ET/9 p.m. PT. He writes Fantasy and other NFL pith on NFL.com daily. Talk to him on Twitter @howaboutafresca. He only asks you never bring up when the Jets play poorly.