RUN IT BACK

How David Johnson's redemption tour with the Texans could impact Week 1

Photo Courtesy of the Houston Texans

Dressed in full pads, David Johnson's 2019 season ended with him watching his Arizona Cardinals succumb to the Los Angeles Rams in a Week 17 defeat. For two teams who were headed straight to Cancún at the conclusion of the final whistle, the Rams last home game inside Coliseum Field held the only significant meaning to the contest. Three months later, the game would hold another.

After he did not receive a single carry during the 31-24 loss to Los Angeles, the Cardinals cut ties with Johnson in a blockbuster trade with the Houston Texans in March. Arizona sent the 28-year-old tailback and two draft picks to Houston in exchange for All-Pro receiver DeAndre Hopkins and a fourth-round pick.

In hindsight, the Cardinals' decision to part ways with Johnson was an inevitable choice.

He lost his starting spot to Kenyan Drake mid-way through the season and ended the year with 47 yards (2.6 AVG) on 18 attempts in his final six games in Arizona. October 13 marked the last time Johnson received more than 12 carries, during a Week 6 victory over the Atlanta Falcons.

Perhaps a change of scenery is what Johnson needs to reclaim his role as one of the league's best running backs. Injuries and lack of production since his All-Pro performance in 2016 resulted in little to no fanfare with his arrival in Houston. And a season playing behind the fourth-worst run-blocking line, per Pro Football Focus, did not help Johnson ease what he described as the "most frustrated year of his career."

Determined to "prove the doubters wrong," Johnson's road to redemption has a chance to get off to an exceptional start, when the Texans open their 2020 season against the Chiefs, Thursday night, at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City.

"I think I've always had pressure since 2016," Johnson told a group of reporters via Zoom conference in early-August. I like the pressure. It makes me want to be better. It makes me want to compete more and do everything I can to prove the doubters [wrong] or want to make [Bill] O'Brien look good and want to make this organization look good. I'm excited about this season, and I can't wait for it to officially get going."

The one major flaw that has hindered the Chiefs from becoming a perfect team is their inability to stop the run. Last season, Kansas City gave up a total of 2,051 rushing yard (128.2 YDS) — seventh-most in the league. Ten times the Chiefs allowed their opponents to rush over 100 yards during the regular season — which included the Texans, who recorded 192 yards during their Week 6 victory in Kansas City. Carlos Hyde — whose production Johnson can emulate playing in Houston's system — led the way with 116 yards on 26 carries.

Although it's still a daunting task, it's no secret that the best way to beat the Chiefs is by attacking them on the ground. Houston's Offensive Coordinator, Tim Kelly, said on Sunday that if they need to run the ball to win the game, then they have the ability to do that. Based on Kelly's statement, Johnson will play an integral part in Houston's attempt to exploit Kansas City's Achilles heel in his Texans debut.

"He's a special back," Texans' center Nick Martin said. "There's no doubt about it. He's so big, but he finds a hole and he hits it hard and he finds a way to somehow get skinny through that hole and burst out. We're very excited to have him behind us and block for him and finish and let him really just do his thing back there."

Even in a down year, Johnson proved he can still be a productive player coming out of the backfield when given a consistent amount of touches. In his best game of the season, DJ recorded a season-high 91 rushing yards in the Cardinals' 26-23 victory over the Bengals.

The video clip above demonstrates that Johnson still possesses the same explosiveness that led to his first 1,000-yard season (1,239) in 2016. It's the prime example of what the Texans can expect from DJ when given a suitable amount of touches. On this particular Sunday afternoon, Johnson received 17 touches — his second-most of the 2019 season.

The Chiefs have already experienced their fair share of struggles playing against the Memphis native. Despite a Cardinals' loss in 2018, Johnson ran for 98 yards and a touchdown on just 21 carries. A duplicate performance on Thursday would not only improve the Texans' chances of opening their season with a win, but a successful first stop on the David Johnson Redemption World Tour.

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Should Watson be in the MVP conversation? Composite image by Jack Brame.

The 2020 NFL season has a lot going on. Even if we take the coronavirus out of it, there's still a lot to digest. There are so many great performances being put up, one can make an argument for several players to win league MVP. The quarterback position typically gets more credit than others. If I restrict the argument to quarterbacks only, we're looking at Russell Wilson, Patrick Mahomes, and Aaron Rodgers. Dalvin Cook, Alvin Kamara, and Derrick Henry are the leading contenders at running back. On defense, there really isn't a standout defender. The defense gets no love, but there are several guys in the running for NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

Deshaun Watson has been putting up numbers that have matched or rivaled some of the top MVP candidates over his last seven games. That stretch has coincided with the firing of head coach/general manager Bill O'Brien. Coincidence? I think not. Taking the reigns off a wild horse can often lead to said horse running free and flourishing! So question: Should Watson be getting league MVP considerations? I think so.

For starters, he's been one of the best players in the league over the course of the last seven games. 18 passing touchdowns and only two interceptions. The only quarterback with a better touchdown to interception ratio over that same span is Mahomes (19 and 2, as opposed to Watson's 18 & 2). Factoring in total season stats, of course Mahomes is doing much better. He's on a better team with a much better coach and general manager. The same could be said for Wilson and Rodgers. Put Watson on any of those teams and their records wouldn't be any worse than what they are now.

The Texans are 4-3 since firing O'Brien. While that isn't a great record, consider the fact they started the season 0-4 and looked like a total disaster. Watson looked like he was caged and couldn't wait to be freed. The team's record could be even better if the defense had a pulse. The proper supporting cast has a lot to do with a player's MVP candidate's chances. Now that one of his favorite weapons, Will Fuller, and the team's best corner, Bradley Roby, are both suspended for the rest of the season by the league for violating the substance abuse/PED policy, things will get much tougher for Watson.

If he continues to put up these cartoon like numbers, I don't see why he wouldn't be in the MVP conversation. He's currently fopurth in passing yards, sixth in completion percentage, tied for fifth in passing touchdowns, eighth in QBR, and third in quarterback rating. Watson is emerging as the star he was projected to be coming into the 2017 draft. I'm not saying Watson deserves to be the league MVP, but he deserves to be in the conversation. His MVP candidacy should be treated like the family gathering hierarchy: once you reach a certain age and/or status, you're no longer resigned to the kiddie table. Now you get to sit with all the adults, engage in their conversations, and gain access to things you couldn't previously. Watson won't win the MVP award, but I strongly believe he could finish top five. Especially if he keeps making lemonade with the lemons he's been given.

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