Saving Larry Johnson

What is the tragedy of Kansas City's 2007 season? Is it the 4-11 record, the wilting of the defense, the complete and total collapse of the offense? Is it the empty seats at Arrowhead Stadium or the bitter end to the winning streak against the Oakland Raiders?

Is it really any of these things?

In truth, it is none of them. The real tragedy is the depressing revelation that Larry Johnson is not immune to history.

Everyone cringed when Johnson was loaded down with 416 carries a year ago, knowing the danger of that history – Jamal Anderson, Eddie George, James Wilder, Eric Dickerson – and what it might mean for LJ's NFL future. There was hope that Johnson might be the exception to the "Curse of 400," especially after he trained hard with legendary power lifter Joe Carini last offseason and enjoyed a rest while waiting on a new contract.

Sorry, said history. No exceptions. Mr. Hawk is here to break your foot.

Sure, it was a freak injury, but Johnson gained 43 yards in his first game of the year. He limped to 53 in his last game of the year. In between there was just four total touchdowns, a few spiked balls and plenty of missed blocks. The curse lives on.

This is not the Larry Johnson Kansas City had come to know and (occasionally) love. The old Larry Johnson, the one who seemed to roll out of bed and gain 150 yards like it was nothing, has not been seen for almost a year now.

But forget 150-yard games. How about the clutch Larry Johnson who used to save KC's bacon in the fourth quarter every week? Remember the mad dash to the one-yard line and the goal-line plunge against the Raiders in 2005? Remember the 78-yard screen-and-run against Arizona and the late-game touchdowns against the Raiders (again) and Seahawks in 2006? Remember the 30-yard, fourth-quarter dash and subsequent touchdown against Denver in 2005, capping a 90-yard performance over the final 15 minutes?

After that very game (a 31-27 Chiefs win), Johnson would say, "Everybody, including the media, expects me to fold."

Well, it finally happened. Johnson looked at his hand and threw the cards down on the table this year, especially late in games. He scored only two touchdowns and averaged only 3.4 yards per carry (which looks really bad when you factor in a stat-padding 37-yard run against San Diego) in the fourth quarter this year. To put it bluntly, Larry Johnson folded just like his foot did against the Packers.

In his place, the Chiefs turned to rookie wide receiver Dwayne Bowe. It was Bowe who scored the winning touchdown against the Minnesota Vikings in Week 3. It was Bowe who hauled in a 58-yard grab on third-and-long against the Oakland Raiders in Week 7, setting up Johnson's 1-yard touchdown plunge. It was Bowe who put Kansas City ahead against the Chargers in Week 4, scoring from 51 yards out. Just this last week, it was Bowe again, giving fans hope with a 34-yard score late in the game against Detroit.

All told, Dwayne Bowe was Mr. Clutch this year, catching 17 passes for 359 yards and scoring three times in the fourth quarter. No Kansas City Chief gained more combined yards in the final frame in 2007. That used to be Johnson's role.

So how does Larry Johnson re-capture the magic? Wilder, George, Anderson – none of them really managed to find their way back down the path to gridiron greatness. Only Eric Dickerson (6,291 yards and 35 touchdowns after his encounter with the 400-carry beast) seemed to have some gas left in the tank.

We certainly have no answers, and it's doubtful Joe Carini can provide anything more, either. You can say Johnson is rested after a low-mileage year, or that he'll be inspired by Kolby Smith's success, but none of that will really make a difference. The only thing that can help Johnson now is the 52 players around him.

The Chiefs must assemble a competent offensive line. They must put it to work in tandem with a competent - and experienced – offensive coordinator. They must avoid, at all costs, overworking Larry Johnson again, because there would certainly be no turning back after that.

They must do all of these things, because a franchise running back is a terrible thing to waste. And so is $45 million dollars ($19 million guaranteed).

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