Not only has Penn State’s Larry Johnson finally “arrived” in the NFL after two years of bench warming but also the media are now giving him serious accolades. Recently, for example, The Turkey read a comment in Sports Illustrated that said if the NFL season was 20 games long, Johnson would win the rushing title. A hypothetical impossibility, yes, but it tells the story of Larry’s accomplishments in the second half of the season. Since taking over the feature back position for the Kansas City Chiefs from the injured Priest Holmes, Larry has shone like a magnitude 10 star, albeit still with some attitude problems. This Turkey is genuinely happy to see a Penn State running back doing so well in the NFL after all the disappointments of the past decade.
You know which disappointments I am talking about. When the most durable Penn State running back in the NFL’s recent history turns out to be the non-spectacular Richie Anderson, something is wrong. He’s now out of the game, leaving sparsely used Kenny Watson of the Cincinnati Bengals the only active running back other than Johnson. People call us Linebacker U., but Penn State has a long history of turning out talented NFL running backs, too. Lenny Moore, Franco Harris, Lydell Mitchell, John Cappelletti, D. J. Dozier, and Curt Warner are just a few from earlier eras. However, after them we entered a period in which highly touted Penn State running backs repeatedly turned out to be NFL wash-outs. Blair Thomas, Ki-Jana Carter, and Curtis Enis quickly come to mind. They were all first round draft picks who were major flops in the money league.
For a couple of seasons after he was drafted #27 in the first round in 2003, Larry appeared to be following in their footsteps. His credentials were excellent. He had run for over 2,000 yards in his final year at Penn State and he had finished third in the Heisman voting. However, many pundits wondered what Kansas City had in mind drafting him when they already had a premier runing back. Initially mired deep in the murky shadows behind Priest Holmes, Johnson was all but invisible. The few plays in which he would spell Holmes were not sufficient to develop either Johnson’s running or his image. In his first two years, Larry carried the ball only 140 times for 666 yards. He asked for more playing time but was told to wait his turn. He dogged it in practice to protest. His coach, the venerable Dick Vermeil, called him a crybaby, telling him that he “needs to take the diapers off.” It was not a happy situation.
Things took a turn for the worse when early in the 2005 season, Larry Johnson was arrested and charged with assault. The press was down on him and he still wasn’t getting much playing time, although he was given more of a chance than in the prior two seasons. At that point, he was sharing backfield duties with Holmes. Vermeil’s challenge apparently had succeeded in inspiring Johnson to work harder to earn a place. But Larry was still unhappy.
Then, Holmes went down with a season-ending injury. With a jaundiced eye cast upon him by local and national media, Larry became the #1 running back for the Chiefs, a playoff contending team. Mindful about past Penn State running back flops and Johnson’s rocky relations with Vermeil, the media would not easily be impressed. Johnson was viewed as a weak back-up for Holmes—someone who could not carry Priest Holmes’ jock strap. Ahh, but they were wrong.
Vermeil handed Larry the ball and he ran with it. And ran. And ran. As of week 14 in the NFL season, Larry is the league’s fourth leading rusher with 247 carries for 1251 yards, 852 of those yards having been gained in the most recent six games. In those last six games, Johnson has averaged 142 yards per game. He has fumbled only three times all year.
Now, the sports press has done a 180. All of a sudden, Larry Johnson’s name is being mentioned along with names like Shaun Alexander, Tiki Barber, Edgerrin James and LaDanian Tomlinson. It took them a while to get over the Penn State bust cynicism, but Larry’s performance has been too consistent and just plain too damn good for him to be a fluke at this stage. If he stays healthy, he could be an All-Pro.
What happened? I think Vermeil gave him the kick in the ass that he needed. Whether his newfound maturity will impel him to surmount the extracurricular crap, time will tell. He is still growing and he is handling his starring role reasonably well.
One indication that Johnson is taking his role seriously was noted by this Turkey in a Chiefs game several weeks ago. Trent Green, his quarterback, had a short pass intercepted by an opposing linebacker who made a mad dash toward the far end zone. Larry chased him down from the other side of the field, closing on him like an FA-18 on afterburner. He made the touchdown saving open field tackle with such good form that I was convinced that Johnson had spent time working on defense in practice. There was nothing half-assed about it. Perhaps ol’ Grandmama is developing a work ethic after all.
Maturity Issues Could Be the Monkey Wrench
On the other hand, Larry has a reputation for being soft on blocking duties, which accounts for his frequently being pulled on third down in obvious passing situations. I’ve even seen the local press refer to this as a “refusal” to block. Some excellent running backs can’t block worth a damn but if they’re in there, they at least try to do the job. If Larry is indeed not even giving it the old PSU try, then that work ethic is still in doubt.
It remains to be seen whether Holmes will return and, if so, whether Johnson’s role will be diminished next season. Furthermore, no one can be certain whether Johnson’s maturity problems are completely solved and whether his improved work ethic will persevere. However, it is clear that he has earned himself a starting role, if not in Kansas City, then on some other NFL team.
When asked recently about his future on Sirius Radio, Johnson put the diapers back on. Commenting about returning to the backup role for Holmes, he said:
I canâ€™t go backwards. Iâ€™ve gone so far and worked so hard, itâ€™s hard to say, “You gotta go back on the bench now.” Itâ€™s just so hard to do that.
I could see it if I wasnâ€™t really accomplishing a lot and wasnâ€™t doing as much as Iâ€™m doing right now. But itâ€™s really hard to tell me at this point, at this stage of my career, really trying to push my career, and being as young as I am, to say, “Hey, you gotta go back on the bench and play that same No. 2 back role.”
I donâ€™t think I could really handle it.
So, Larry. Maybe if you stop refusing to block and you stop whining, you can be a true superstar. You’re not that far away from it, Baby! Bust your ass and keep your mouth shut until you’ve earned the right to talk!
Let’s just hope that Johnson gets that message.
For us Penn State fans, Larry’s ascendancy means renewed respectability for Penn State running backs and the program. Bragging rights aside, that respectability pays tangible benefits in the form of enhanced recruiting opportunities. Success breeds success.