Bruce Arians has a plan for the Cardinals' offense. It involves David Johnson. Some more of David Johnson. And then even more of David Johnson.
Throughout the offseason, the Cardinals coach repeatedly declared that he wants his running back to average 30 touches per game. On his part, Johnson expressed his support for Arians' plan. It's easy to understand why he's on board. The only way Johnson can accomplish his goal of becoming the third player in the NFL history to eclipse 1,000 yards as both a receiver and a runner is by getting a ton of touches.
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"That's my No. 1 goal -- to have 1,000 receiving and 1,000 rushing -- just because two guys have done it and also because I was so close last year," Johnson told CBS Sports Radio's Tiki and Tierney. "Unfortunately with the injury, I wasn't able to do it. I felt like I would have had a chance to do it. I was feeling good that game. I was having a good game until the injury. But I know for a fact that's one of my main goals."
Both are insane propositions. It's insane for a coach to dream of a season that involves 480 touches for one individual. And it's insane for a player to entertain the idea of running for 1,000 yards and racking up 1,000 receiving yards.
Yet the most insane part of all this is, it's entirely possible. In 2017, there's an actual chance Johnson will join Roger Craig and Marshall Faulk in one of the most exclusive clubs ever -- let's call it the 1K/1K club from here on out -- and there's an actual chance Johnson will join James Wilder in an even more exclusive club -- let's call it the 30 touches per game club. And if he were to do both in one season, well, he'd form his own club.
Let's look at how he can get there and if it would even be a good thing for Johnson and the Cardinals
The perfect playmaker
The best receiver during the 2016 season wasn't Antonio Brown or Julio Jones or A.J. Green. It wasn't Odell Beckham Jr. or insert name of top wide receiver here.
It was Johnson, according to Pro Football Focus. That's right. A running back was PFF's highest graded pass catcher.
David Johnson can do it all. pic.twitter.com/uSq8oraUzH— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) June 16, 2017
In all, Johnson caught 80 passes for 879 yards and four touchdowns. I know what you're thinking. Just how many (expletive) screens and swing passes did Carson Palmer throw last year?
So, here's the thing: Yes, Johnson caught his fair share of screens and swing passes to get that gaudy stat line above. But he also ran actual receiver routes. Take a look at his receiving map, per PFF:
If you were to see that map without any context, you'd think it belonged to a tight end or an underneath receiver. But it belongs to Johnson, a running back. According to PFF, the average depth of targets for running backs is 0.8 yards downfield, which is 11 yards shorter than the average depth of target for a receiver and 7.4 yards shorter than the average depth of target for a tight end. Johnson's average depth of target? 4.6 yards downfield -- or 3.8 yards farther downfield than his peers.
That's a number that's dragged down significantly by his backfield catches. So, consider this: When Johnson didn't catch a pass in the backfield, his average depth of target was 8.2 yards downfield, per PFF.
Here's Johnson lining up in the slot and running a receiver route:
Doesn't matter where you line up Johnson; He's extremely dangerous as a receiver. pic.twitter.com/GgvdDX9PLv— Jonathan Kinsley (@Brickwallblitz) July 18, 2017
Here's Johnson turning a quick pass into an OMG moment:
OH MY GOD OH MY GOD OH MY GOD OH MY GOD OH MY GOD OH MY GOD OH MY GOD OH MY GOD OH MY GOD OH MY GOD pic.twitter.com/7irO0C7MRc— Jonathan Kinsley (@Brickwallblitz) July 17, 2017
Of note: He forced 27 missed tackles as a receiver, per PFF -- nine more than the next closest running back, LeSean McCoy.
And here's some more of his work as an actual receiver:
Whether you think #31 is the best back or not, we can all agree he's insanely fun. pic.twitter.com/vV30JdQqHw— Jonathan Kinsley (@Brickwallblitz) July 18, 2017
(H/T Jonathan Kinsley for the GIFs. He's a must-follow on Twitter.)
You get the point. Johnson is technically labeled as a running back. But he's so much more than that. He's the perfect playmaker.
Plus, it's not like Johnson isn't an effective runner. In 2016, he rushed for 1,239 yards and 16 touchdowns on 293 carries (4.2 yards per carry). Let's run through some of his more advanced statistics, not that you need to be convinced of his effectiveness.
According to PFF, he forced the fifth-most missed tackles (44) on rushing attempts. One example, because it's incredible:
Too much fun. pic.twitter.com/eRTfHUGxkv— Jonathan Kinsley (@Brickwallblitz) July 19, 2017
Put together as both a running back and receiver, Johnson posted the 10th highest elusive rating among running backs. An elusive rating is a PFF statistic that "attempts to distill the impact of a runner with the ball independently of the blocking in front of him by looking at how hard he was to bring down."
He led the league in yards from scrimmage with 2,118 -- and keep in mind, he missed most of the final game of the season. The next closest player? Ezekiel Elliott with 1,994 yards, which means Johnson won the yardage crown by 124 yards.
Translation: He's amazing. If not for the Cardinals' 7-8-1 record, he would've been a legitimate MVP candidate. And if anyone can get to 1,000 rushing and receiving yards, it's Johnson. He's the only player talented enough to do so.
An area of improvement: home runs
Some running backs stat lines are skewed by a few home-run carries. Not Johnson. Only 24.1 percent of his yardage came on runs that gained at least 15 yards, which ranked 17th in the NFL. For the sake of comparison, Isaiah Crowell led the league with 47.5 percent of his yardage occurring on such runs.
If Johnson wants to join the 1K/1K club, he'll need more home runs. At least that's what Arians thinks.
"He should have had it last year," Arians told NFL Network. "He busted some routes in September that would have put him over easily. I was on his tail a little bit early on in the season. I think he probably had a chance had he not gotten hurt in that last game."
Would he have gotten to 1,000 receiving yards had he not suffered that injury? It's impossible to say, but it would've been difficult. He would've needed 121 receiving yards in the final 49 or so minutes of the Week 17 game.
It certainly would've been possible.
So obviously, staying healthy is paramount. Johnson won't reach his goal unless he plays in every game. His workload is also key.
The good news for Johnson is that Arians wants him to touch the ball 30 times per game.
"I want to have 30 touches out of him, if possible, because that's going to be a lot of offense," Arians said in March, via ESPN. "When he has his hand on the ball, either as a wide receiver, coming out of the backfield, in the slot, and running, that's a lot of potential offense for us."
Last season, Johnson touched the ball 23.3 touches per game, or 373 times in all. So to get to 30 touches per game, Johnson needs to garner 107 more touches in 2017 than he did in 2016, which sounds nuts, because it is. If he were to average 30 touches per game, he'd join Wilder (1984) as the only players to average at least 30 touches per game.
I don't think Johnson will get there. The Cardinals have other capable players -- hello, Larry Fitzgerald -- and they'll want to feed them as well.
So, if Johnson can't get there, how many touches does he need to reach 1K/1K status? If we take his two-year career averages of 4.4 yards per carry and 11.5 yards per catch, we can arrive at two rough numbers. If he performs like he has the past two years, Johnson probably needs somewhere around 228 carries and 87 receptions -- 315 total touches.
That's entirely possible! As previously mentioned, Johnson got 373 touches last year, so 315 is totally reasonable. The reason Johnson couldn't gain entrance into the 1K/1K club last year is because his average yards per carry and yards per receptions both dropped from his rookie to sophomore season. So, if Johnson averages what he did last year (4.2 YPA and 11.0 YPC) he'll need roughly 239 carries and 91 catches -- 330 total touches. Again, this is totally reasonable, considering Johnson had more than 330 touches last year. The biggest hurdle appears to be getting to the 87-91 reception range, as Johnson caught 80 passes last year.
But, again, this is possible. David Johnson has a realistic chance at making history.
Is this is a good idea?
Just because it's possible doesn't mean the Cardinals and Johnson should pursue it. If Johnson's averages dip -- they might considering how damn high they are -- it'll take more than 330 touches to get him into the 1K/1K club. And that's a bad idea.
Beware of the 370 curse. Not familiar with it? It basically says that running backs who carry the ball at least 370 times in a season are cursed in future seasons due to the heavy workload. And the evidence is convincing.
Now, there's a difference between 370 carries and 370 touches, as Arians tried to explain to "PFT Live" in July.
"I think [his usage is] just right. I'd like to get it up a little bit more in receiving yards," Arians said, via Pro Football Talk. "Early in the season he had a chance to have big games and he ran the wrong route a couple of times. I kept telling him all year about that. I said, 'You would have had your 1,000 and 1,000 [rushing and receiving yards] if you'd have busted those ones in September.' … I think 30 touches is not too much for him when you're talking about 10 receptions, 20 carries. And that's not 20 times up the middle where he's gonna get busted up. We're going to make sure we take care of him."
Of course, Arians is the same coach who once said football is under attack from moms and that Johnson is "too young to overuse," so don't believe everything he says. Are 370 carries and 370 touches the same thing in terms of a workload? Probably not. Are 370 touches too much for a player? Probably.
The point being, while the thought of Johnson getting 30 touches per game sounds awesome form a pure football and fantasy football perspective, the idea of the Cardinals overworking Johnson so early in his career definitely doesn't sound awesome.
Plus, it didn't work out so well for Wilder and the Buccaneers back in 1984:
And @pfref can tell you how exciting that 1984 Bucs offense was pic.twitter.com/OFOV5ReNXa— Bill Barnwell (@billbarnwell) March 29, 2017
That doesn't mean an offense centered around Johnson won't work, but rather the Cardinals have a ton of other great weapons they should use, like Fitzgerald. I'd say the Cardinals should probably maintain Johnson's current workload so that his peak lasts for more than just a few seasons. The reason the Cardinals went 7-8-1 last year wasn't because they didn't involve Johnson enough. They went 7-8-1 because of Palmer's rough first half and special teams disasters.
Johnson is arguably the best football player on the planet. Hopefully, he gets to retain that status for a long time. You know what's cooler than joining the 30 touches per game and 1K/1K club? Setting the NFL running back record for most yards and touchdowns from scrimmage in a career. For Johnson, that's entirely possible. He's so good that -- barring injuries -- he could rewrite the record books and reset the standard for running backs.
The good news for Johnson is that he's good enough to join Craig (1985) and Faulk (1999) in the record books without taking on a dangerous workload. And the good news for the Cardinals is that both of those teams (the 1985 49ers and the 1999 Rams) won more than 10 games, and one (the Rams) even took home the Lombardi Trophy.
So, there's a balance that needs to take place. It's not a bad thing if Johnson hits 1,000 in both rushing and receiving yards. But it is a bad thing if reaching that goal requires him to average 30 touches per game -- both for the Cardinals' chances to win in 2017 and Johnson's long-term prospects.