Larry Johnson Needs to Play

First round draft picks are expected to contribute in their first NFL season, if only on special teams. But a first round draft pick can be ruined for the rest of his NFL career, if their first year in the NFL is a complete disaster. The Chiefs are not at that point with running back Larry Johnson but they're getting harmfully close.

You have to give credit to Larry Johnson. He's made some public statements about his plight this season and handled it with tact and class. He was supposed to be the back-up to Priest Holmes on draft day. He was the insurance policy that Chiefs President Carl Peterson wanted. He insisted they take Johnson over head Coach Dick Vermeil's apparent objections on draft day. In hindsight, the move was still shrewd and the Chiefs were wise to gamble on Johnson.

Nobody knew what shape, condition or game speed Priest Holmes would be in on opening day.

Johnson came to every mini-camp; he signed his contract before the start of training camp and was welcomed to the Chiefs by Holmes and the rest of his teammates at camp. Yes he even sung a few bars around the training table. He was a true rookie.

Johnson was slow to get off the blocks in training camp. He was behind, because like every rookie in the NFL, they have to adjust to the speed of the pro game. It's not easy to make the physical or mental transition from College to Professional football. Just learning the plays can make you weary eyed. The NFL playbook is vastly different than a college playbook.

When the exhibition season started, Johnson struggled. He fumbled the ball and the Chiefs feared he could not pass block efficiently. They were right. But eventually against the Seattle Seahawks in the exhibition season, Johnson shined.

He ran the ball, caught the ball and had an explosive kick-off return that he outraced the entire Seahawks cover team. In fact, he almost lapped them twice, that's how fast he was moving. He might have the best pure speed on the team. He had nearly 200 yards in total on that Saturday night in August.

In the regular season, Johnson has played in only one game against the Texans in Houston. He managed to get 25 yards on six carries in mop up duty after Derrick Blaylock scored his first professional touchdown in the same game.

Blaylock is entrenched as the teams back-up running back for now. But his primary contribution has been to the special teams. In fact, Blaylock has been one of the primary reaoson for Dante Hall's success this year.

But Johnson was not drafted to play special teams. He was drafted to be a running back. Not necessarily a starting back but at least someone who could spell Holmes for maybe five or ten carries per game.

That's what he envisioned and that's what the Chiefs were anticipating. That's also why they gave him all that money.

Even though Holmes is back from his hip injury, by his own admission he's not yet 100%. He's been banged up in every game this year and he's still second in the NFL in total yards from scrimmage. But Holmes can't do it all by himself and the Chiefs understand that. At some point, Johnson needs an opportunity.

That opportunity could start Monday Night in Oakland. In their next six games, the Chiefs face the Raiders, Bills, Browns, Bengals, Raiders again and Chargers before lining up against the Denver Broncos for the second time in what will determine the AFC West title.

In the NFL, injuries can happen on any given snap. The life of many starting running backs usually starts a slow decent once they hit their thirties. Holmes is at that point, Blaylock is still learning the position but Johnson is a pure back.

Can Johnson carry the load? Nobody knows. But he needs to be given the opportunity if the Chiefs want to get any benefit out of him this season. Blaylock has speed but he's not someone who can run up the middle, take hits and make people elude him on a consistent basis. Johnson has those skills and abilities.

But Johnson has a chip on his shoulder and a legacy he wants to crush. He wants to play and contribute to the Chiefs this season and he wants to dispell the critics who have already labeled him another Penn State running back bust.

Johnson led the NCAA in rushing last season and the only thing he's leading his team this year is in games not played. The Chiefs will need Johnson sometime in November or December.

With their 6-0 start and six NFL patsies on the upcoming schedule, Johnson needs to find some success. Because if Holmes gets injured and Johnson continues to sit; then the chances that he has success in a crucial game could be minimal. If he fails because he's not prepared, then the Chiefs only have themselves to blame. What's worse is that they could ruin Johnson in the long run.

Johnson spoke to the Kansas City Star a few weeks ago and he admitted to being frustrated. He admitted that he questioned why the Chiefs drafted him. On Wednesday evening, Johnson was on a local sports show and he admitted that he's not mature enough to address the situation with his head coach.

How refreshing is that. It's actually very classy and Johnson appears to be grounded for someone for his age. Yes he's frustrated, angry, hurt, confused but he still gives his all in practice knowing he might not dress for another game this season.

If that doesn't speak volumes for Johnson, then you're missing how special Johnson could be for this team. He has the restraints not to say anything out of line and is willing to pay his dues his rookie season and do what's best for the team. Sounds like a Vermeil guy to me.

There is no doubt in my mind that Johnson will move ahead of Blaylock if not this year then without a doubt next season. If given the opportunity, the Chiefs need to develop him this season in the event Holmes is hurt later on.

If the Chiefs open up a wide lead in the AFC West, then Johnson should actually start a couple of games. The Chiefs play the Lions, Vikings and Bears to close out their 2003 regular season. They'll have played every AFC division game and have faced all their 2003 AFC opponents; thus they will be able to set the bar for home field advantage. If it's set in stone, then the Chiefs need to rest some regulars and get some playing time for their back-ups.

That's why Johnson needs to get on the field now. He deserves it soley based on his attitude and work ethic in practice. In fact, Vermeil has publicly stated that he believes Johnson is game ready and could carry the ball on offense.

Now Vermeil has to back up his words. If Johnson is needed in January or February, it would be to the Chiefs benefit to have given him some significant reps the next six games. Top Stories