Arizona Cardinals running back Chris Johnson wasn't supposed to be doing this. His best days were apparently behind him, his possibilities seemingly all but evaporated, his career having run into that dreaded dead end that comes with being 30 years old. Johnson's numbers had been declining and he'd also survived a drive-by shooting. The last thing anybody expected was to see him become the best story nobody is talking about this fall.
Aside from Kansas City Chiefs safety Eric Berry beating cancer, there isn't a better comeback in the NFL than the one Johnson is authoring every week in Arizona. He's the second-leading rusher in the league (with 676 yards) and he's a key reason why the Cardinals are likely to win the NFC West. Johnson basically is proving why it was a mistake to underestimate him in the first place. All he needed was the right set of circumstances to reveal all he had left to offer.
It turned out that Arizona was the first team to give him a shot. Johnson also recognizes that the Cardinals might have been the only ones to do so.
"There was a lot going on with me [this offseason], a lot of negativity," Johnson said. "That seemed to turn people off on me. A lot of things happened, but at the end of the day, I'm grateful that the Cardinals wanted me."
Johnson was smart enough to understand that comebacks start with faith more than anything else. He had to have it within himself, and the Cardinals had to see something beyond an ugly moment in Florida and the belief that a running back loses most of his value after his 20s. After all, Ray Rice would be working if some team thought he could still average 4 to 5 yards a carry. Johnson easily could've vanished from the league if people thought he had become damaged goods.
The negativity that Johnson referred to revolves around a tragic incident that occurred in the early-morning hours of March 8 in Orlando, Fla. Johnson was in a car with some friends when an assailant in another vehicle drove by and shot at them. The gunfire killed the driver in Johnson's car and wounded another passenger. One of those bullets pierced Johnson's right shoulder before the shooters drove off.
That night left the 5-foot-11, 203-pound Johnson confined to bed rest for six weeks and he ultimately lost 25 pounds. He also still wore a protective sling on his right arm when he started training in California in April, a constraint that prevented him from doing any upper body work for the first two weeks of those sessions. The one thing Johnson did have going for him was motivation. He wasn't going to let that moment be the end of his career in a league where he'd once been hailed as the most electric back in the game.
Johnson admits he wasn't expecting many phone calls once training camps opened. His cause also wasn't helped when two Instagram photos emerged during the offseason (one in March that showed Johnson and two friends taunting the shooters and another in August that revealed the wound to his shoulder). But Johnson also had the proper frame of mind once he signed a one-year contract with Arizona on Aug. 17. He acknowledges that the incident had changed his perspective on life and that he was ready to capitalize on his new opportunity.
"I got cleared for contact around the end of July," Johnson said. "So I could run routes, catch the ball and do more things. But there was still a lot going on that I had to come back from. It wasn't just my shoulder that I had to work on. For one thing, I had to get used to gripping the ball again. Then once I got into camp, I pulled a hamstring. I just had to keep praying and keep my head down."
Aside from the injury, Johnson was far from a sure thing. His résumé was impressive -- he gained at least 1,000 yards in his first six NFL seasons with the Tennessee Titans and amassed 2,006 in 2009 -- but he only totaled 663 yards last year with the New York Jets. The knock on him was that he was a speed back who was finally slowing down. At best, he could be part of a backfield rotation as his career came to a close.
The Cardinals only promised Johnson a chance to compete for carries with Andre Ellington and David Johnson. It didn't take him long to show he could do more than that. Johnson ran for 110 yards in a Week 3 win over the San Francisco 49ers and he's had three more 100-yard efforts since that day. He also had a season-high 30 carries in last Sunday's 34-20 win over the Cleveland Browns, a performance that was marred only by two fumbles that Johnson lost during the contest.
Arizona now has gone from wondering about its running game to having a reliable combination to throw at opponents. Ellington and David Johnson both bring the same versatility to the position that Chris Johnson offers. Add their talents to a passing game led by quarterback Carson Palmer and a gifted receiving corps, and the Cardinals have as much firepower as any team in football. That potential was a major reason why Chris Johnson jumped at the opportunity Arizona provided.
Johnson wasn't looking for a place where he could be a star again. He only wanted a shot at helping a good team win.
"My expectations when I came here was that I would just have a role," he said. "Not that I was going to just be satisfied with that, but I knew that nothing was going to be given to me. I was going to have to earn everything I got."
Johnson has done exactly that -- and more -- during his brief time in Arizona. In some ways, he's brought back memories of his first year in the league, when he was a startling surprise in Tennessee. In those days, Johnson was a relatively unknown kid out of East Carolina whose mind-blowing speed had led to the Titans selecting him in the first round of the 2008 draft. He was supposed to be part of a committee at that time, as well -- the Titans had burly LenDale White in the backfield -- but Johnson quickly emerged as one of the most critical factors in the Titans' fortunes.
We're seeing a similar occurrence for the Cardinals this season. This was already a team on the rise, one blessed with a strong passing attack and a tough defense. But sometimes you need some luck to go from being talented enough to make the playoffs to being dangerous enough to claim a championship. The Cardinals just found their good fortune in a player we didn't see coming for the second time in his career.