Numbers Game: Chronicling Chris Johnson’s Slide

David Neupauer, Numbers game, Tennessee Titans

In 2009, Chris Johnson exploded onto the NFL scene with 11 straight 100-yard rushing games.  He ended the year with 2,006 rushing yards on 5.6 yards per carry.  He did it by generating big play after big play.  He was far and away the league’s most dangerous runner, with 22 carries of 20+ yards and 7 runs of 40+ yards.  But he only averaged 4.3 yards per carry last year, and is averaging a meager 3.0 thus far in 2011.  In recent years, the league average has been about 4.2 yards per carry, leaving Johnson well below average thus far in 2011.  Whether it’s an accumulation of punishment, increased defensive attention, or something else entirely, the end result is clear: declining productivity on a per carry basis.

In the above chart, the red line is a 3 game “moving average” of his yards per carry.  I used a moving average to smooth out the volatility of yards per carry on a game-by-game basis (which is also shown, as the light blue line).  You can see that since early 2009, the red line has been gradually trending lower.  If we were analyzing a stock chart, we’d call this a “downtrend.”

The question now is whether Johnson can reverse the trend.  In week 7 he faces the Texans, a team he has dominated.  He has topped 130 rushing yards and 5.2 yards per carry in 3 of his last 4 meetings with Houston.  In fact, the single best game of his career may have been against the Texans in Week 2 of 2009:  Johnson totaled 197 rushing yards on 12.3 yards per carry, added 87 receiving yards, and scored 3 touchdowns.  The Titans would love to see Chris Johnson rediscover the explosiveness he showed on that Sunday in 2009.

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