For three years, the Chiefs pretty much won games because of Larry Johnson. In 2004, Johnson had three 100-yard games. The Chiefs won all three. The next season, Johnson racked up 10 100-yard efforts. The Chiefs won seven of those games. In 2006, the Chiefs won nine games, and eight featured 100 yards from Johnson.
So for three years, Dick Vermeil and Herm Edwards saddled Johnson up, and it was "Hi-Ho, Larry! Away!" And the Chiefs won the day. Just like "The Lone Ranger."
I suppose that is why I like Larry Johnson so much. He makes me feel like a kid again. I would sit in front of my tiny, 14-inch TV set all those years ago, and every week, I couldn't wait to watch Clayton Moore in black and white. Today I sit in front of a 52-inch TV set, and every week during football season I can't wait to watch Larry Johnson in red and white.
But the last two years, something terrible has happened. Johnson's torrent of 100-yard games has almost completely dried up, and, not surprisingly, the Chiefs have stopped winning games. "The Lone Ranger" has been getting pounded by the bad guys every week, and Tonto has been running around on the sideline, looking fairly clueless.
Even worse, Johnson's off-the-field behavior has raised question marks about his future. It's as if people stopped watching "The Lone Ranger," and instead of defending truth and justice in the old west, Clayton Moore decided to walk into the nearest saloon and start angrily dousing people with Sarsaparilla.
And now Larry Johnson wants to ride off into the sunset forever. He's determined to walk off the set at Arrowhead Stadium, perhaps to return someday as the villain. According to remarks stated and re-stated by Johnson this offseason, he wants out. It appears he's convinced himself that he doesn't much care for Kansas City, and Kansas City doesn't much care for him.
Larry, don't hang up your six-guns just yet.
Maybe you're Kansas City's Lone Ranger, but you're not alone. Chiefs fans still care about you, still want to see you scoring touchdowns, and are terrified at the thought of losing you.
Maybe you don't believe it. Maybe you only encounter, angry, bitter fans who are irritated at your lack of production and sizable contract. But there are still plenty of fans who can see beyond that, have been Larry Johnson fans from the beginning and remain fans to this day.
Larry heads for the end zone, and Williams.
Williams was wearing your Penn State jersey, holding up a sign that read, quite simply, "LJ." You pointed right at him as you strolled through the end zone. Williams knows what kind of player you are. He knows you were happy to hang out with fans at "The Boomer Grigsby Show," (which may have been the highlight of the show's one-season run) and to sign autographs until your fingers are ready to fall off. He calls you "first class."
Williams is not alone. Larry Johnson fans come from as far away as Billings, Montana, where Dan was sold on you the moment you broke the 2,000-yard rushing barrier at Penn State.
"Even if he wasn't on the Chiefs, I'd still like him," says Dan. "He's special because he's the kind of back that wants to win, and when the offense is meshing well he'll find a way to put the cherry on top."
And that cherry, Larry, is undoubtedly your running style. Chiefs fans love it. Andrew, from New Jersey, calls it a "run-into-defenders-first, ask-questions-later mentality." There are even some fans that see you as a throwback to the old days of Marty Schottenheimer.
"I don't remember Christian Okoye much, and I never really knew what it was like to have an every-down running back for a long chunk of my fan life," says Robert from Blue Springs, Missouri. "Then came the Vermeil years, and with that came Priest Holmes, who we all fell in love with. Then, all of a sudden, here comes Larry. He's bigger, faster, and stronger than anyone I've seen put on a Chiefs jersey. How could you not fall in love with somebody who has those physical skills and put up the kind of results LJ did?"
Brian, from Vina, Alabama, became "enamored" with your running style as soon as you replaced Holmes.
"I like physical football," he says. "And the way that Johnson would actually seek out defenders to punish them and look to actually hit the defenders, well, I found that very appealing. I believe that Johnson is one of the top running backs in the NFL and is immensely talented, but I feel that the refusal to supply him with even a decent line has wasted some of his prime years."
And there's a key issue on everyone's minds. Johnson turns 30 this November, the supposed age of decline for every NFL running back. So the question begs – what does Larry Johnson have left? Can he hand out punishment as he did in 2005 and 2006?
His fans see no reason to doubt.
"I believe Johnson has three to four good years ahead of him, and possibly even five," says Brian. "The reason is that Johnson does not have the normal mileage, or wear and tear, of a standard running back his age. People often forget that he wasn't in the featured role in college until his senior year. Then when he came into the NFL, he was on the bench behind Priest Holmes for the first couple of years and did not get a starting role until midway through his third year."
"He is also a durable player, with the only injury of his career coming from a freak accident tackle from A.J. Hawk of the Packers, in which he came down on top of Johnson's foot. So, provided that that injury doesn't come back to haunt him, I believe that Johnson has several productive years left."
And despite the fact that Johnson failed to rush for 1,000 yards last year, some fans see 2008 as proof that he's not close to being finished.
Will Larry ride again?
So just how upset will these fans be if Larry Johnson is not a Chief next season? So upset they're brainstorming scenarios in which he can stay. Andrew, from New Jersey thinks Johnson could be effective in the two-back system, a recent popular development in the NFL. Another fan compares Johnson's current situation to what Ricky Williams went through in Miami.
"When Parcells came in at some point I'm sure he met with Ricky, asked him where his head was at, and told him he planned to run him," says Andrew from Overland Park, Kansas. "If Scott Pioli believes LJ is talented, then he will run him, and that's what he should do. All he would have to do to get back in good graces with the fanbase is work hard, and score touchdowns. People have short term memories, especially when it comes to superstar athletes."
And Andrew may have a point. Because it wasn't that long ago that the Chiefs had no feature back to count on, and every offseason in Kansas City was filled with speculation over star running backs from other teams. Count Dan among those who are not ready for a return to those days.
"A lot of fans don't like him but I think if he left people wouldn't realize what they had until he was gone," says Dan. "He has his problems, but that's his business and everyone has their own problems that they're not proud of. Some fans don't agree with his attitude, but I think he, like the rest of the fans, were not happy the way things were being run under Edwards."
Could that be the real problem? Is the contract dispute, all the off-the-field issues and the lack of production just a smokescreen for a larger problem? Maybe in the end, Johnson just wants to win. Brian certainly feels that way.
"I think Larry Johnson is just a guy who really wants to win badly, and he is frustrated because we haven't been winning," says Brian. "I think he is frustrated because the offensive line issues have not been addressed in a long time. I feel that if these issues are addressed this offseason, due to the change in coaching staff and management, Johnson will perhaps have a change of heart, and may decide that he wants to finish his career as a Chief."
Can that really happen? Against all odds? Will Larry Johnson have a change of heart, and decide to stay in Kansas City? To take advantage of a rebuilt offensive line? To run over more defenders, score more touchdowns and win more games?
Clark Hunt's recent words in the Kansas City Star would certainly seem to indicate that Johnson might now be more inclined to stay. But as fans, we want to hear it from Larry's mouth.
Perhaps we won't find out for months. All we know for the present is that yes, Larry Johnson, you do have fans. And they're trying to reach out to you.
"The man respects the game, and the players that came before him," says Michael, in Seattle. "He truly wants to be the best running back that ever played the game."
"He can run through anyone," says Jeremy, in Waterloo, Iowa.
"He is a great talent," says Brian, in Alabama.
And so, Larry, the fans have spoken. We're waiting to see what Scott Pioli and Todd Haley build in Kansas City. Join us, because there's no reason "The Lone Ranger" can't ride at Arrowhead Stadium again.