The Tennessee Titans defeated the Indianapolis Colts rather handily in a lackluster game Sunday.
But the Titans' 27-10 victory over a winless team seemed to almost take a back seat to the budding potential running back controversy regarding Chris Johnson's continued woes that stretched into another week.
Johnson had just 34 yards on 14 carries – better than his performance the week before – but not enough to keep Javon Ringer from taking the bulk of the second-half carries and piling up 60 yards total for the Titans, who improved to 4-3 and halted a two-game losing streak.
“I'm not downplaying myself or downplaying my talents, but right now CJ is the guy and I'm just playing my role,” said Ringer, who had 14 rushing attempts, just as Johnson did on Sunday. “He understands about a two running back rotation. But he is the guy. He is the starter, and he will get the bulk of it and I'm just making sure I'm always ready to step in whenever he needs a break.”
Titans coach Mike Munchak wouldn't say the team had a running back controversy, just that he and running backs coach Jim Skipper decided to give Ringer a try.
“I think every game will be different,” Munchak said. “I just think it depends on the flow of the game, how it's going. I don't think we're consciously trying to decide by series who's playing. We're not doing any of that. It's more of a feel thing for Skip, our running backs coach. ...We know we're a work in progress as a run game.”
A work in progress, of course, is not what the Titans had hoped for when they gave Johnson a $53 million extension after a training camp and preseason holdout. Tennessee was hoping for the same type of production that has marked Johnson's first three seasons in the NFL.
Titans quarterback Matt Hasselbeck even admitted that Johnson's struggles this season are somewhat comparable to what Shaun Alexander went through when they were teammates in Seattle. Alexander went from 1,880 yards rushing in 2005 and being the league MVP to never getting 1,000 yards again.
“I definitely see a lot of similarity in that, just in terms that you're so successful in such a major way with fantasy football and all that stuff, that people are expecting it just to happen. There's a lot that goes into it. It's hard to be that elite all the time,” Hasselbeck said. “People got on him real quick, real easy. He probably got a little too much credit when things were good and definitely got too much blame when things were bad.”
Johnson seemed to be accepting of the situation of splitting carries, even as it marked the first time another running back had had equal or more carries than him since Oct. 11, 2009, also against, Indianapolis, when LenDale White had more rushing attempts.
“The coaches have a rotation, I guess they're trying to jumpstart us,” said Johnson, who has 302 yards rushing for the entire season. “What the coaches have dialed up, we as players have to go out there and perform when it's our time to perform. ...It's frustrating not getting the running game going, but any time you come out with a victory, I can't really say I'm upset and frustrated.”
Johnson had just six carries in the second half and watched as the Titans salted the game away in the second with Ringer getting nine attempts for 44 yards in the second half.
Still, he admitted that that was tough to take, watching while Ringer carried the load down the stretch.
“The type player I am, and the playmaker I know I am, it's hard to be on the sideline while the offense is making plays,” Johnson said. “Of course, I always want to be out there going to war with my team. If it was up to me, I'd want to be out there every single drive, but it's just a situation where the coaches call the plays and they have a rotation and things like that.”
For his part, Ringer wasn't buying into any issues at the running back position.
“CJ is the number one guy, period. I'm going to continue to support CJ, because one, he is my friend, but I feel like I am blessed and fortunate enough to get in there and do my part to help us win,” Ringer said. “But CJ is the guy. He knows that; I know that. I just have to make sure I continue to do my role.”
While the Titans try to figure out what is wrong with CJ, Ringer could have more carries for the foreseeable future.
“I think in general we knew we were going to give both a chance to get some reps and get some plays,” Munchak said. “He made a couple of runs which was good, Ringer did. Chris had some early in the game, so it was just a matter of how we rotated them.”