Chris Johnson insisted he is not the problem in the running game.
Teammates said the same thing after the Tennessee Titans' Sunday's embarrassing 41-7 loss to Houston Texans.
But sources have told TitanInsider that Johnson's conditioning when he ended his holdout and reported to the team was perhaps not as good as it needed to be, and that that conditioning issue could be a factor in why the running back has been having problems getting going this season.
No doubt, something is amiss with the Titans' $53 million man after a 10-carry, 18-yard effort in Sunday's loss. The Titans had already entered the day dead last in the NFL in rushing, and Sunday's team performance of 53 yards on 15 carries won't change that.
Thus far, Johnson has lacked the same explosiveness that he had in seasons past. Through six games, he has 268 yards rushing. At that pace, he would finish with 715 yards this season.
Johnson said after the game that he did not believe his conditioning was an issue. The NFL lockout wiped out all of the off-season – Johnson did show up to Cortland Finnegan's informal workouts in June – and Johnson's holdout cost him all of training camp and the preseason.
“I feel like I've been back,” Johnson said. “I feel like my conditioning and me missing camp, I can't say that's the problem with the running game.”
But some players across the field on the winning sideline admitted that Johnson didn't look quite the same. Arian Foster, who had 115 yards rushing and 119 yards receiving, said he himself is still not in what is termed “football shape” from a hamstring injury and the lost off-season. And he can't see how CJ could be in football shape after all the time he missed.
“He's going through a lot of what I went through, except that I did have some football before,” Foster said. “It's tough, and he's getting a lot of criticism right now. When you don't go through a training camp, you can run all day, but football shape is football shape, and it takes awhile.
“It wouldn't surprise me if he bounces back the rest of the season.”
Linebacker Brian Cushing, who grabbed CJ by the leg and took him down on first contact after the running back caught a pass, said Johnson can be slowed down if you hit him hard early.
“I don't know whether it is a change in the offensive coordinator, missing camp or whatever,” Cushing said. “I just think he hasn't gotten in his groove yet. You look at the way he runs, and the capabilities he has and his speed. He is one of those guys who is a home run hitter. If you hit him early, I think it kind of deters him a little bit.”
Johnson's teammates say that it is the offense as a whole that is the issue and won't point the finger elsewhere.
“I don't think it has anything to do with him,” guard Jake Scott said. “The passing game is not that great either. We're getting the quarterback hit some, more than we should. We're not executing as a whole. Obviously, he's a part of it because he's a part of the offense, but it's not a singular thing.”
Johnson agreed, saying, “I won't say I'm the issue. I'm very confident that I've been doing the things that I've been having to do. It's a situation where I continue to say that I can't do anything but keep running hard and working hard and doing what I can for the this team.”
Fans also booed Johnson and the offense plenty in the first half of on Sunday, before simply heading to the exits in the second half of the blowout. CJ indicated that he can't focus on that, only that his teammates and the organization knows he is working.
“It really don't matter, as long as the organization knows and the locker room knows what we have to do to get this straight, it really don't matter what everybody else has to say,” he said.