Wanted: Running Back

As I watched preseason football over the last two weeks, one major thing stood out: the talent of running backs on NFL rosters outside of Kansas City.

When the Denver Broncos took on the San Francisco 49ers in Week 1, I felt a little sorry for Donnie Edwards, Napoleon Harris and Derrick Johnson. Tackling Travis Henry isn't going to be an easy proposition this year. He was bouncing off 49er defenders like a pinball.

Last Thursday I watched Miami's Ronnie Brown do almost the same thing to the Chiefs. On one play, even with KC's linebackers penetrating into the backfield, he found a hole, shrugged off a weak tackle attempt by Jarrad Page and sprinted downfield for a sizable gain. On another, he escaped from the grasp of Tamba Hali and broke into the secondary while half the Chiefs defense stood around and gawked.

This weekend I finally reached my breaking point. Minnesota's supremely talented rookie running back, Adrian Peterson, took his first handoff of the night against the Jets, broke a tackle at the line of scrimmage and whipped out an electrifying spin move. He then turned on the afterburners and burst down the sideline for a 43-yard gain, punctuating the run by slamming New York safety David Barrett to the ground.

So this is what jealousy feels like.

It's time to sign Larry Johnson. The Chiefs have spent a month now playing games with him (or actually, without him). Meanwhile, Michael Bennett, Kolby Smith, Derrick Ross, Marcus O'Keith and Priest Holmes have done nothing to give anyone a shred of confidence in the offense.

Just how pitiful have KC's running backs been? If you remove quarterback scrambles and wide receiver reverses from the equation, the Chiefs have averaged just 2.9 yards per carry this preseason. That number falls to 2.5 if you eliminate Bennett's 16-yard draw on third-and-20 in the Cleveland game.

And here's a really awful statistic. On 25 first-down running plays through two exhibition games, the Chiefs are averaging a paltry 1.9 yards per rush.

Yeah, maybe the offensive line has been horrible. But great running backs can make a difference. We saw it all last season with Johnson, when most of the time the holes were anything but gaping, and the Chiefs couldn't run to the outside with any consistency all season long. Remember when Broncos linebackers Ian Gold and Al Wilson met LJ at the line of scrimmage last November before graciously getting out of his way and surrendering 15 yards? That's what the Chiefs are missing right now.

General Manager Carl Peterson and company can't wait any longer. They can't prolong this circus until the regular season hits. Johnson is probably in great shape – give the guy credit for busting his rear end in Arizona during the holdout – but he's not in football shape.

If he was signed today, it's unlikely he'd play against the New Orleans Saints on Thursday. Herm Edwards won't want to rush his star player back to the field too early, risking an injury. A week of practice and Johnson would be ready for a few snaps against the St. Louis Rams next week, just enough of a tune-up to get him prepped for Houston.

If they wait until the eve of the season opener against the Texans – or God forbid, even later in the regular season – the Chiefs won't be able to use LJ the way they'd like to. When Emmitt Smith held out in 1993, the Dallas Cowboys waited two weeks into the regular season before finally signing him. Not only did they begin the year with two consecutive losses, when Smith returned his role in the offense was severely diminished. He had just eight carries in his first game and 13 in the next, even with a bye week in between.

Signing Johnson now is preventative medicine for that sort of nasty illness. And the history of holdout players suffering injury upon their arrival is well known. Imagine if the Chiefs started 0-3 and caved into LJ's demands, only to see him blow out a knee in the next game. Yikes. Better to bring him along slowly than rush things.

The thought of a Chiefs team getting crushed without Larry Johnson isn't the only reason to sign him immediately. Be honest, Chiefs fans. What really gets your butts in the seats at Arrowhead Stadium?

Over the weekend I almost purchased a ticket to see Kansas City play Minnesota in the Sept. 23 home opener. Then I realized, hey, there's no guarantee my favorite player will be carrying the ball in that game. Why fork over my hard-earned cash if I'm not getting the most out of my entertainment dollar?

If I wait, I risk not getting a seat, but the penalty is merely watching the home opener on television. The other option is blindly clicking the button on Ticketmaster's website and hoping Johnson is signed in time for my visit to Kansas City. If he's not, I'll probably wind up sitting in the heat with 80,000 other disappointed fans, watching the Vikings thrash the Johnson-less Chiefs. Then I can enjoy a depressing plane ride home in a cramped seat on Southwest Airlines. And if terrorists hijack my flight, I'll really be kicking myself.

That's no fun. And I know I'm not the only fan who thinks this way.

I have a hunch that Chiefs Nation will be buying tickets (maybe even season tickets, Carl!) and #27 jerseys in droves once Johnson is in the fold. Signing him is good business.

What's the holdup, anyway? In the midst of these negotiations, some people want to make Peterson out to be Public Enemy No. 1, but Clark Hunt just dropped another $50 million in the Arrowhead Stadium renovations fund. I'm not going to call Hunt cheap (give him credit for caring so much about Arrowhead), but putting all that money into the facilities while fielding a team absent of a real superstar is like getting a $15,000 facelift and then dressing in clothes from Goodwill.

C'mon, Clark. Think of Larry as a big, expensive diamond necklace. Frost yourself.

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