The Arizona Cardinals think highly of second-year running back David Johnson. So highly, in fact, that the obvious ways in which the Cardinals depended on Johnson Thursday night against San Francisco came as a surprise.
It's no secret the Cardinals view Johnson as the now-and-future of the team's offense, which is why asking Johnson to carry the ball 27 times on short rest should be subject to questions.
Perhaps the decision to rely on Johnson so heavily Thursday shouldn't be met with criticism, but it should at least be met with questions considering Thursday night games are openly despised by players and coaches for the compromising positions midweek matchups force players into.
Maybe the Cardinals had no choice. Entering the game with a 1-3 record, the Cardinals couldn't afford to lose to a team practically guaranteed to finish in last place in the NFC West. Without its starting quarterback, Carson Palmer, Arizona knew it couldn't rely on backup Drew Stanton to carry the load for an offense that had been struggling. Furthermore, with backup running back Chris Johnson now on injured reserve, maybe David Johnson was Arizona's only hope for offensive production.
When the dust settled on Thursday night, Johnson had carried the ball 27 times for a league-wide 2016 single-game high of 157 yards and two touchdowns. Most importantly, though, Johnson emerged without any significant injuries, justifying the risk the Cardinals' coaching staff took in relying on him so much.
Thursday night games are brutal for NFL players, especially for backs and linemen who take the brunt of contact on running plays. After carrying 17 times for 83 yards on Sunday against Los Angeles, Johnson didn't miss a beat in the Thursday night divisional showdown, and Arizona emerged victorious because of that.
Nevertheless, the Cardinals' lack of faith in Andre Ellington was telling, and suggests Johnson is headed for a 300-carry season regardless of the outcome of Arizona's next few games.
At 91 carries through five contests, Johnson is only on pace for 291 carries at this point, but the loss of Chris Johnson signals an increasing dependence on David Johnson.
At this point in the year, Johnson and the Cardinals rank ninth in the NFL in rushing offense, with Johnson averaging 5.0 yards per carry. His patience, vision and speed are simply scintillating, and as the Cardinals proved Thursday, it's hard to resist making the most of his talents.
However, Arizona must be careful. Once the game was decided Thursday, head coach Bruce Arians did the right thing and inserted Ellington to take the garbage time carries and preserve Johnson's body, but it didn't make the high volume workload any more dangerous.
A victory Thursday night was important, but not an absolute necessity. Even at 1-4, the Cardinals could have climbed their way back into the wildcard race with a healthy Palmer and a healthy Johnson. Emerging with a healthy Johnson though, was an absolute necessity. If the Cardinals were to lose their featured back, an overly reliant offense likely wouldn't have recovered, sending the team into a downward spiral.
Fortunately for Arians and Arizona though, Johnson's play and health validated the decision to call on him a career-high 27 times. After just three days of rest, Johnson was able to lead the Cardinals to a much-needed victory, and as the team proved Thursday, he'll need to be able to do so much more throughout the rest of the season.