Give Johnson a Break

You can say what you want about rookie running back Larry Johnson, he fumbles, he runs upright, he can't pick up blocking schemes and he's not picking up the offense. But none of that should matter in his inaugural NFL training camp. Down the road Johnson will be a contributor. He has to be. The Chiefs will need him.

Larry Johnson was a heralded running back from Penn State who had an impressive senior season after leading the Nittany Lions and the nation in rushing yards (2077). That success led to Johnson being a first round draft pick last spring. Johnson was a back up his first three years but blossomed in his senior campaign and that made him a sure fire first round draft pick.

Two weeks before last April's draft rumors around the Chiefs had them very interested in Johnson. With the team still concerned about the health of Priest Holmes, the Chiefs only had Derrick Blaylock and Jarmar Julien as back-ups. Tony Richardson the starting fullback was coming off a shoulder injury so the Chiefs did the smart thing by drafting another running back.

They tried to solve the problem in free agency but Olandis Gary signed with Buffalo and Shawn Bryson signed with Detroit. Neither was a starter but they would be more than adequate to spell relief for Holmes.

But the Chiefs worked out Johnson and were impressed with his demeanor and how mature he presented himself. Now Penn State running backs, outside of Franco Harris, have all been a bust in the NFL and the Chiefs were convinced that Johnson was going to be the exception and not the rule.

On draft day there was some debate about drafting Johnson because Carl Peterson and Dick Vermeil were not on the same page. Peterson felt Johnson was the perfect pick even after the Chiefs made a move to trade down in the first round. Vermeil wanted more defensive help.

Peterson won out and Vermeil actually did as well. With the trade to move down in the first round, the Chiefs were able to select Tennessee Cornerback Julian Battle. Battle appears to be a winner.

If the trade did not take place, and the team was not convinced Johnson would fall, then Battle would never have been drafted by the Chiefs since they traded their third round pick last year to complete the Willie Roaf trade.

Regardless, Vermeil was not happy and Peterson wanted to look for a future back in the event Holmes was not able to return to his pro bowl status.

In retrospect, it was a good and safe move. The Chiefs had already addressed some huge holes on defense with an aggressive approach in free agency. So they agreed to draf Johnson.

Johnson promised he would be signed, sealed and delivered prior to training camp. He kept his word. The Chiefs who are notorious for bringing in draft picks late, worked hard to get him in camp and Johnson held onto his word.

As camp started, Johnson appeared to be overwhelmed and was falling behind the other running backs. Rumblings that he was slow to learn the offense were true. Reports that he has a plethora of blocking assignments to learn were true. He was excelling at nothing. He was falling down the depth chart and his head coach was not pleased.

As the exhibition games started, Johnson only took a couple of snaps against the Green Bay Packers. He struggled fumbling twice against the San Francisco 49ers in the second game.

Johnson was not happy. The Chiefs were beginning to question his ability and Vermeil, to his credit, took some of the responsibility, claiming his staff needed to coach him better. There is a lot of truth to that.

At Penn State, Johnson had very little responsibility. He ran the ball to the left, to the right or up the gut. He caught the ball and blocked on occasion when Penn State actually threw the ball. But the offense Johnson had to learn in College was very simple. The Chiefs offense is a nightmare to learn.

It's like going from high school to Princeton Law School. It's that large of a jump. Johnson is smart, has athletic ability and will eventually pick it all up. But the Chiefs continue to list him as the third string running back.

I undertand why but it makes little sense to me after investing so much money in Johnson.

But lately, the Chiefs are touting Derrick Blaylock as the man who will substitute for Holmes. Blaylock has had the benefit of running behind the starting offensive line where as Johnson has been running behind players who might not be in the NFL in the next ten days.

The Chiefs had declared that they were going to play Johnson against the Minnesota Vikings with the starting offensive line but Blaylock once again relieved Holmes as Johnson waited for mop up duty.

Johnson had spurts where he looked good against the Vikings and he kept his hands on the football this time. He had just had a terrible debut at Arrowhead a week ago by fumbling twice and he came back the next week and held onto the ball. That impressed me and showed something about his character.

Johnson is a very proud young man and he's as disappointed in himself as the Chiefs and some of the fans stand today. But what does not kill us will make us stronger and Johnson will rebound.

He needs to because the Chiefs need him. Derrick Blaylock has not been a success at during his first three years in the NFL. Yes he has great speed but he has little cutback ability and until he learns that, then he'll get some nice gains against defensive back-ups but not against high quality starters.

It's interesting that before training camp and during the off-season, Blaylock was behind Jarmar Julien, who unfortunately is injured. He was impressive in the off season workouts as well. And some Chiefs coaches had Julien ahead of Blaylock.

Johnson has the intangibles and more experience playing in big time games than Blaylock. The Chiefs also gave Johnson an $8 million contract and that fact alone will keep him ahead of Blaylock.

If the Chiefs thought Blaylock was such a stud then Johnson would not have been drafted. Remember Jessie Haynes; a workout warrior who had some nice moments in the pre-season and then never made the team.

Now I'm not down on Blaylock but Johnson has more upside and though Vermeil is a master at taking average talent and make it better like he did with Dante Hall. Blaylock has not shown anything other than some flashes and the Chiefs need sparks that lead them to first downs and touchdowns. Johnson has a better chance of doing that in the long run than Blaylock.

Even Priest Holmes struggled in the eyes of the coaches in his first training camp and in his first pre-season with the Chiefs. In fact, the Chiefs had some doubts about Holmes until his breakout game against the Washington Redskins in 2001.

So to be critical of Johnson at this point is unfounded. All Johnson has to do is have a few break out runs over the next two games and he will be fine. He can already help on special teams and has shown a propensity for blocking punts in college.

But the Chiefs have to get him some playing time running the ball with the first offensive unit this week against Seattle to be fair to him and to see where his development is on the football field. The rest will come. He will grasp the offense but he can't sit on the sidelines if they expect him to be successful.

With Holmes still a question mark, especially if he does not get his contract extension, the Chiefs will need more than Derrick Blaylock to be successful if Holmes sits out. They'll need a confident Larry Johnson sometime this season.


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