Not many people thought Larry Johnson would develop into a solid running back. Most ,if not all of the media, were clearly on the same side as Chiefs Head Coach Dick Vermeil; who thought it was a mistake to take the Penn State running back three years ago when this team was desperate to add defensive help.
The NFL is littered with Penn State running backs that have had stellar college careers but have failed to deliver the goods in the NFL. Johnson from day one was determined to shatter that image once and for all. Though his tact was not always the best, there was no question about his heart or his desire to get on the football to prove he was different than his college predecessors.
After Priest Holmes went down earlier in the season with a concussion; Johnson assumed the mantle and led the charge for the resurgence of the offense. What he's done the last eight weeks has been simply remarkable.
His rushed for over 100 yards in eight straight games. He's scored 17 touchdowns this season to date and has 1549 rushing yards as both a back-up and a starter. If you factor in the yards Holmes gained (451 yards), it's clear that Johnson would be chasing NFL rushing history next weekend against the Bengals.
Former Los Angeles Rams running back Eric Dickerson holds the NFL record for most yards gained in a season. Back in 1984 Dickerson ran for 2104 yards. Two years ago, Baltimore Ravens running back Jamal Lewis nearly broke the mark but he fell short when he rushed for 2066 yards in 2003.
Johnson assuming he was healthy and had started the season as the number one running back would have an even 2000 yards rushing through 15 regular season games. Consider the fact that Holmes who started just seven games, Johnson's running yardage and touchdowns numbers are even more impressive.
After the Chargers game Kansas City Chiefs President Carl Peterson talked about both of his premier running backs.
"I wish we had them both," Peterson said referring to Johnson and Holmes. "I wish we could have played Larry a little less and Priest a little more. That way they'd both be fresh."
That could be the second biggest dilemma that faces this team next year. It's clear that Head Coach Dick Vermeil is not coming back but what does Peterson do with Johnson and Holmes. How can they coexist in the same backfield yet alone the same team?
That's the sixty-four thousand dollar question Peterson faces and it could be just as important to resolve that issue before the season starts as it will be to find the right head coach to lead the Chiefs into their new era.
It's clear the fans have spoken. Several times during the Chiefs games on Saturday the faithful who managed to show up in wind, rain and the cold chanted ‘Larry, Larry' throughout the game.
"It made me feel good to have the fans really rally and get us pumped as an offense, not just me," said Johnson right after the game.
Johnson is arguably the teams most popular player amongst the fans and it's clear the respect he has from his teammates continues to grow each and every game. It's no longer a fluke what's happening on the field when LJ touches the ball.
"Larry plays great ball," said All Pro Guard Will Shields. "He comes out and plays with passion. That's one thing we like about him. He's a guy who can in and stepped up. For him to come in a say, ‘Hey, I wasn't the starter when I started the season, but right now I'm considered the starter because Priest Holmes is out,' and to take it in on his shoulders and do well, it's excellent."
Another person who knows something about great running backs is San Diego Chargers Head Coach Marty Schottenheimer who has the pleasure to watch LaDainian Tomlinson every day in practice.
"Certainly Larry Johnson performed extremely well," said the disappointed head coach after the teams 20-7 loss to the Chiefs.
But what is setting Johnson apart from other great running backs is his ability to excel in a variety of situations and field conditions. Saturday's field was sloppy to say the least but that didn't faze Johnson one bit as he scored two touchdowns and gained 131 yards on the ground against the NFL's premier run defense.
"Anytime you're in a game like this and you know it's going to be a grind-it-out, run oriented game, knowing the type of defense that they have and how good they are against the run, obviously give a lot of credit to the offensive line and running back Larry Johnson for that," said Chiefs quarterback Trent Green.
Now the only question that remains will be what to do with Johnson if Holmes comes back to the Chiefs in 2006. That could prove to be a stickier situation considering the fact Johnson has hired a new agent.
Generally that means a player wants a new contract and to be fair, Johnson is underpaid and he's entering the prime of his career; thus wanting a new deal is something that Peterson will have to consider as he juggles a very precarious cap situation for the Chiefs next season. Early projections indicate that Kansas City is sitting nearly $19 million over the projected 2006 salary cap of $95 million.
But that's why Peterson gets the big bucks and based on his ability to sign a plethora of offseason targets a year ago with limited cap space and budget, there is little doubt that he'll find a way to make Johnson a happy camper off the field.
Larry Johnson has done his part and now the Chiefs organization has to step up and resolve the running back situation before free agency begins next March. Peterson is already on record stating he expects Holmes back in 2006 but that could be a mistake that could cost the Chiefs the heart and fire of their premier offensive player.
Larry Johnson deserves everything he gets and now all he wants is to continue to be the main man in the Chiefs offense. There is only room for one running back and he knows it, the players know it and I bet Carl Peterson knows it in his heart.