Analysis: Johnson Coming to Detroit to Start

Lions fans, forget what you've seen from Kevin Smith. Rudi Johnson didn't cancel his appointments across the league on Monday so that he could sit behind a rookie running back.

Lions fans, forget what you've seen from Kevin Smith.

Rudi Johnson didn't cancel his appointments across the league on Monday so that he could sit behind a rookie running back.

No, Rudi Johnson came to Detroit to play. He came to revitalize his career. He came because, at the end of the year, he'll be ready to collect in free-agency. And if that means helping the Detroit Lions along the way, great. But first and foremost: Johnson's perogative is to put the league on notice.

During Monday's meeting with the coaching staff and a handful of players, Johnson blended in perfectly. He has history with quarterback Jon Kitna, who played with the Bengals during part of Johnson's seven-year tenure with Cincinnati. He is friends with starting offensive right tackle George Foster, whom he will run behind often in 2008. In his individual workout at the team's Allen Park training facility, he left those in attendance shaking their heads.

Injury? Near as anyone could guess, Johnson was in mid-season form.

Rudi Johnson led Cincinnati's rushing attack since 2001 (last four seasons below).
2004: 361c, 1454 (4.0 ypc)
2005: 337c, 1458 (4.3 ypc)
2006: 341c, 1309 (3.8 ypc)
2007: 170c, 497 (2.9 ypc)*
*Missed 4 games due to injury

Jeff Gross / Getty Images

He showed no signs of his ill hamstring, which hampered his production in 2007. The Bengals claimed that they released Johnson because his performance was still affected by the injury, but this doesn't seem accurate. Or accurate at all, really. A source in the Bengals organization told me that Johnson's health was fine, and that his release was entirely money-related.

Johnson was owed just over $5 million for 2008 and is 29 years old. With an emphasis on its passing game and former Michigan running back Chris Perry ready to take over, the Bengals -- who attempted to trade Johnson but could not because of salary cap restrictions -- couldn't justify the investment in a player that wasn't in their long-term fold.

But their disposal of Johnson is Detroit's treasure. And don't think that the Lions didn't earn the envy of several other franchises.

Johnson had appointments lined up across the league, including at Houston. One source said that "half the league" had at least inquired about Johnson, and while it's a likely exaggeration, the price Detroit paid for one-year of his service -- he'll get just over $1 million and a half-million signing bonus -- is a bargain. Here's why: Johnson will be starting in Detroit within a few weeks.

The team's offensive backfield, after dumping inadequate veteran Tatum Bell to make room for Johnson on the roster, is comprised of Smith, recently signed rookie Marcus Thomas, and Johnson -- a former Pro Bowler and veteran who accumulated 4,221 yards between 2004 and 2006. To suggest that Johnson is anything but the go-ahead starter is to question the sanity of Detroit's coaching staff.

(And with Mike Martz gone, that question is easier to answer)

“I pretty much was content and pretty much happy here,” Johnson told the Detroit News after officially signing with the club on Tuesday. “I’m not the type of guy that just goes a lot of different places just to go. It was one of those things where if the situation was right, why not just go ahead and make it happen and get to work?”

And the situation was right for both sides.

If there was any skill position where the Lions had a significant worry entering the regular season, it was at running back. Smith is still considerably green, and while he has showed glimpses of brilliance, he is nevertheless a third-round draft choice with the world to prove.

It was also only a matter of the right player becoming available before Bell was dispatched. Considering Detroit's emphasis on the running game in 2008 (they averaged over 30 carries per game during the preseason), the signing of a capable, veteran running back is paramount to the team's success.

The Lions face traditionally tough Chicago twice during the regular season, host Jacksonville, Indianapolis and Tennessee, and travel to Carolina. The schedule, at certain points, gets downright brutal, and the presence of Johnson in the backfield instead of an untested rookie will alleviate concerns on Detroit's coaching staff -- meanwhile complimenting the team's already solid aerial assault.

One person close to the organization claimed that the coaching staff is "breathing a lot easier" with Johnson in the mix. 

Johnson, meanwhile, is entering a situation with little-to-no competition at his position, and he is healthy. Like in Cincinnati, he is also supported by a talented receiving core and a skilled, capable quarterback leading the offense.

He will do what he simply does best: run the ball.


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