For better or worse, David Johnson has keys to Cardinals' offense

The Arizona Cardinals leaned heavily on David Johnson on Sunday and Bruce Arians and Carson Palmer indicated the team would continue to do that moving forward.

Throughout the offseason, the Arizona Cardinals' running back depth was touted as a defining characteristic of the team's offense.

Arizona boasts second-year starter David Johnson, proven veteran and last year's starter, Chris Johnson, and former featured back and versatile pass catcher Andre Ellington.

As most NFL teams have increasingly moved toward a multi-back approach to lesson the hits starters and even second-team players take on a game-by-game basis, the Cardinals appeared ideally suited to follow that trend this season.

But in the first game of the year, Arizona strayed from the narrative, as David Johnson carried 16 times for 89 yards while Chris Johnson and Ellington combined for just one carry and two yards.

Even though David Johnson didn't earn the Cardinals' starting role until Chris Johnson suffered a broken foot in December, head coach Bruce Arians bestowed the starting title on the Northern Iowa product following the conclusion of the 2015 season calling David Johnson a "bell cow back."

When Arians made that statement, most analysts and fans assumed David Johnson would take first team reps with Chris Johnson mixing in, but it appears after one week of play that we should have taken Arians at his word. 

Arians was asked about dividing up game reps for his trio on Wednesday, and indicated as long as David Johnson isn't tired, he won't be coming out of the game. 

"Yeah he (David) never really got tired, we had a longer drive and he tapped out and Chris (Johnson) went right in and Andre (Ellington) came in on third down. We hope we have some longer drives and that he taps out and then we can get Chris in there."

Even though the modern NFL school of thought suggests teams rotate their backs with more frequency, the Cardinals clearly view David Johnson in the upper-echelon of players at his position. His rep count on Sunday suggests the team believes there's a drop off in talent without Johnson in the game, and in many cases, Arizona can't afford the loss of firepower.

A superior blocker, route runner and pass catcher to Chris Johnson and Ellington, Arians is compelled to play David Johnson in every situation he's capable of handling.

While Arizona returns every offensive skill position player from a season ago including quarterback Carson Palmer and wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, Palmer paid Johnson the ultimate compliment on Wednesday.

The 13th-year NFL veteran said regardless of what type of weapons Arizona has in the passing game, the Cardinals' offense will only go as far as Johnson takes it on the ground.

"It goes where Dave (Johnson) goes," Palmer said. "There's no doubt that he does so much in the pass game not only protection but running routes, catching a lot of balls, you know, very little things will work in the pass game if we don't have a run game. So him running the ball the way he's been running since the beginning of training camp until now has tremendous effect on the pass game and he's as big a part of this offense as anybody is." 

Chris Johnson took less money than he was offered in the free agent market to come back to Arizona on a one-year deal, while the oft-injured Ellington is playing out the final year of a rookie contract. While David Johnson looks the part of a special talent and has showcased elite abilities to date, the position is a volatile one and Arizona is taking a calculated risk putting Johnson in harm's way so often, while keeping his teammates off the field. 

If Chris Johnson and or Ellington becomes unhappy with their role, the Cardinals will have an unsettling situation on their hands that can only be compounded by a potential injury to David Johnson, who is inherently at a greater risk because of his increased rep count.

Perhaps Arizona sees David Johnson as the perfect player to gamble with, but repercussions are severe in the NFL, especially in the backfield. 

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