2016 in review: Chris Johnson

Arizona Cardinals' running back Chris Johnson may have earned his last shot with the franchise in 2016, the second straight season in which Johnson ended up on injured reserve.

It was a risky venture, but in the mind of Chris Johnson, the venture was worth it. 

After racking up over 800 rushing yards through the first 11 games of the Cardinals' 2015 season, Johnson suffered a broken foot and landed on injured reserve, effectively ending his season. With Johnson out for the year, rookie David Johnson assumed the Cardinals' starting job, and the rest is history.

Even though Arizona had just five games remaining in the regular season when Chris Johnson was injured, David Johnson did more than enough to convince Cardinals' management and coaches that he was the running back of the future.

So when Chris Johnson had an opportunity to leave Arizona for another job in free agency this offseason, he took a gamble, returning to the Cardinals knowing he wouldn't earn a shot at reclaiming his starting job.

The 31-year-old veteran was hung out to dry two years earlier, as the New York Jets essentially abandoned Johnson after a 2014 season in which he rushed for a then-career low 663 yards. As the NFL shifted toward incorporating younger, fresher backs into offensive schemes, Johnson waited until training camp in 2015 to find the right suitor, as he signed with the Cardinals following an injury to Andre Ellington.

Johnson seized the opportunity granted to him in 2015, and though he ended up on injured reserve late in the year, he proved himself in an audition for all 31 NFL teams. But instead of playing the field in the free agent market last offseason, Johnson took a chance on the team that took a chance on him, returning to Arizona on a one-year, $1.5 million contract for a shot at a Super Bowl, willing to accept whatever role the Cardinals gave to him.

Johnson in 2016

After Johnson re-signed in the offseason, Cardinals' coaches and players spoke highly of the potential of a Johnson & Johnson backfield in 2016, as Chris and David prepared to team up to lead an Arizona offense that returned every key skill player from one of the league's top units in 2015.

That potential, however, never materialized, as David Johnson clearly became the Cardinals' go-to option early in the season. 

In week one, Chris Johnson carried the ball just one time for two yards in a 23-21 loss at New England, a game that would foreshadow Johnson's role and foreshadow the type of season the Cardinals were set to endure. 

Though Chris Johnson rebounded with a 16-carry effort in week two against Tampa Bay, most of his rushing attempts came when the game was completely decided, as Arizona left its second team offense on the field for almost the entirety of the fourth quarter.

By week three, Johnson was back to playing a true second fiddle, as he recorded two rushing attempts for five yards in a loss in Buffalo.

While Johnson wasn't necessarily going to factor into the Cardinals' offensive plans the way he had hoped, disaster struck in week four as he suffered a groin injury against Los Angeles that forced Arizona to place him on injured reserve.

With a long list of players filling Arizona's injured reserve ranks, Arizona effectively ended Johnson's season when the team elected to bring back safety Tyvon Branch from the list late in the year, exercising the team's ability to activate one player from injured reserve over the course of the season.

As a result, Johnson's 2016 campaign came to a premature conclusion, a story bursting with potential that would finish without the ending both Johnson and the Cardinals so desired.

Johnson in 2017

In 2015, the Cardinals began the year by placing their faith in Chris Johnson. In 2016, Johnson began the season by placing his faith in the Cardinals. In the end, neither season ended the way each side hoped, as Johnson finished out both campaigns on the team's injured reserve list.

Moving forward, it's difficult to envision Arizona prioritizing an injury-plagued 31-year-old running back in free agency, especially considering Johnson may receive a more meaningful opportunity to contribute within a different organization. With David Johnson in the fold, it's highly unlikely veteran backs are going to be lining up outside general manager Steve Keim's office to fulfill a second-team role, so the Cardinals are probably going to be more inclined to add depth behind David Johnson with younger, more unproven backs.

Though Johnson felt a strong sense of pride in returning to the Cardinals last offseason, Arizona's decision to leave him on injured reserve this year probably stung enough for Johnson to pursue other opportunities this offseason. Johnson had worked himself back to full strength by the end of the year and was hoping for a second shot, but the Cardinals brought Branch off of injured reserve, and that may have been the last straw between the two sides. 

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