Titanic struggles for Tennessee's Johnson

Just three seasons ago, Chris Johnson looked like the perfect NFL running back.

The Tennessee Titans' offensive star rushed for 2,006 yards, caught 50 passes for another 503 yards and scored 16 combined touchdowns in 2009.

Despite his relatively slight 5-foot-11, 191-pound frame, Johnson that season proved he could be a workhorse. He had 408 touches, averaging over 6.1 yards every time he had the ball. And he looked like a threat to get to the end zone most of the times the Titans called his number.

Johnson's numbers dropped significantly in 2010, but his 1,364 rushing yards were still an impressive total. Figuring he was an indispensable player for Tennessee, he held out prior to last season.

The Titans eventually caved and awarded Johnson with a six-year, $55.26 million contract that included $30 million in guaranteed money. After getting a $20 million signing bonus last year, Johnson responded with an up-and-down season in which he rushed for a career-low 1,047 yards, a career-worst four-yards-per- carry average and a career-low four touchdowns.

Fast forward to this past training camp, when Jacksonville Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew held out, seeking a long-term extension even though he was under contract through 2013. Jacksonville did not give in to his demands, and he ended the holdout exactly one week prior to the Jaguars' first regular- season game.

Jones-Drew is playing for a base salary of $4.45 million this fall. Johnson, meanwhile, gets an $8 million base salary this season, and the Titans are on the hook for $25 million more from 2013-16, should they keep him on the roster that long.

At this point, it's not looking all that likely that Johnson will remain a Titan through 2016. Through his first three games this season, he has rushed for just 45 yards on 33 carries - less than 1.4 yards per carry (for what it's worth, Jones-Drew, without the benefit of training camp, has 314 yards on 59 carries for a 5.3-yard average.)

When he had just 21 rushing yards on 19 carries through his first two games, Johnson told reporters the poor performances weren't his fault. Instead, he blamed his offensive line.

The offensive line, of course, deserves a good portion of the blame. Johnson, however, also has looked tentative; the explosiveness he showed in 2009 - and the fear he instilled into enemy defenses - seem like a distant memory. For $30 million guaranteed, maybe Johnson could rise above it all and become a difference-maker again.

When an $8 million player says he will only be as good as his offensive line, it seems like an inadvertent admission that he's overpaid. Following Johnson's logic, top offensive linemen would certainly be worth more than top-flight running backs, since the backs' success hinges almost completely on line play.

The Titans are breaking in a new starting quarterback this season, second-year pro Jake Locker. He has been somewhat inconsistent, but the lack of a running game has surely played a big role.

Can Johnson recapture top-flight form in the future? Sure, it's possible. After all, he only turned 27 on Sunday. Even during a subpar 2011 season, he had his moments. During a four-game span, he turned in these three performances: 130 rushing yards vs. Carolina, 190 vs. Tampa Bay and 153 vs. Buffalo.

His other stat line during that four-game stretch? He gained just 13 yards on 12 carries against Atlanta.

That's the maddening thing - the inconsistency. Although Johnson put up huge numbers in those three aforementioned games, he only ran for 65 yards or more in four of 16 games.

When former New York Jets running back Curtis Martin was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame last month, some critics said that he was overrated - merely a stat compiler who was never at any point the top running back in the league. Some critics have said the same thing about another one of the Hall finalists, ex-Pittsburgh Steelers running back Jerome Bettis.

Those arguments are not without merit, but there's also something to be said for the consistent back who always answers the call and rarely lays an egg. How often did Martin or Bettis have 12 games in a season in which they rushed for fewer than 65 yards?

Neither Martin nor Bettis often had a game that rivaled Johnson's 190-yard performance against the Buccaneers last year, but they just as rarely had the kind of 13-yard clunker Johnson turned in against the Falcons.

No doubt realizing they are unlikely to ever see 2009-like production again from Johnson, the guess is that the Titans would welcome back the more consistent runner he was as a rookie in 2008, when he gained 65 yards or better in 10 of 16 games.

Maybe the real lesson here is that it's rarely a good idea to commit so much guaranteed money to a running back because their shelf lives are usually quite short.

The Jaguars probably handled the Jones-Drew holdout the right way. He's been a great running back, and easily Jacksonville's finest player during his time there, but he'll be 29 by the time his contract expires and he reaches free agency in 2014. His best days will likely be behind him by then, since the wear and tear on running backs can't be underestimated.

Football can be a cruel sport. Johnson outplayed his contract when he had his career year in 2009, and the Titans recognized that when they ultimately renegotiated with him. Tennessee's fans would have considered it a highly unpopular move to allow Johnson - the face (and legs) of the franchise - to miss regular-season games last year.

The flip side, though, is that paying him $8 million this year is not the best use of resources in a salary-cap sport. He'd almost need to recapture 2009 form the rest of this to live up to the contract, and it just doesn't look like that's going to happen.

Jeff Saukaitis is a former Sports Network writer/editor who has been a professional sportswriter since 1985.