Given good blocking and a fresh start, Larry Johnson might still be the power-running Pro Bowler who had back-to-back 1,700-yard seasons for Kansas City. Are you listening, Seattle? What do you think, Indianapolis? Or he might be a declining malcontent who’ll only cost money and cause trouble.
To that, every coach and general manager in the NFL is listening. The Chiefs released the controversy-plagued Johnson on Monday, the day he was due back from his second suspension in the past 12 months.
On his Twitter account two weeks ago, Johnson had questioned coach Todd Haley’s competence, insulted followers and used a gay slur. He repeated the gay slur the next day to reporters and was suspended for two weeks.
In spite of Johnson’s baggage and his age — he turns 30 on Nov. 19 — any team with a faltering running game might be tempted to take a chance. The Seahawks’ running game ranks 30th and lead back Julius Jones has been sputtering. Just last week, they released backup Edgerrin James.
The Colts’ running game has also stalled. But Indianapolis might be more interested in filling holes in the secondary, and the Colts have Donald Brown, a rookie running back they feel will be capable of big things.
Johnson was only 75 yards away from breaking Priest Holmes’ team rushing record, and his agent said he greeted his release with mixed feelings.
“A part of him is excited and a part of him is very regretful,” Peter Schaffer told The Associated Press. “There’s a lot of feelings going on right now. It’s analogous to breaking up with a girlfriend. Maybe you saw it coming, but it still hurts when it happens.”
If anyone figures he can recapture the power, quickness and durability that made him one of the best backs in the league in 2005 and ’06, Johnson is sure to be snapped up. But since rushing for a team-record 1,789 yards on an NFL-record 416 carries in 2006, he’s never been quite the same.
Running behind a poor line for the Chiefs (1-7), he has averaged only 2.7 yards a carry this season.
“He’s a very good back,” said running back Kolby Smith, one of Johnson’s closest friends on the Chiefs. “He’s a two-time Pro Bowler and he was only 75 yards rushing away from holding the all-time record here. I know teams will look at that. They’ve seen what he’s done in the past and I think someone will pick him up.”
If they do, they’ll embrace a player who has been suspended twice and issued two public apologies in the past year.
In 2008, then-coach Herm Edwards benched him for three straight games for violating team rules. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell suspended him a fourth game for violating the league’s player conduct policy.
Johnson was later sentenced to two years’ probation after pleading guilty to two counts of disturbing the peace. One woman accused him of throwing a drink on her and another said he had pushed her head at a Kansas City night spot.
A judge suspended the sentence and said he would remove the guilty plea from the public record if Johnson has no further legal problems during probation.
After his huge year in 2006, Johnson stayed away from training camp, demanding more money and he got it, a six-year deal worth $45 million, including $19 million guaranteed.
But not in shape and hampered by a foot injury, he wound up with only 559 yards and three touchdowns. In 2008, he ran for 874 yards as the Chiefs sank to 2-14 and fired Edwards and general manager Carl Peterson.
Getting benched for three games last year and suspended by the league for one cost him big. And this year he lost another $315,000 for the gay slurs and tweeting. Last week, an online fan petition was started asking the Chiefs not to let Johnson become the team’s all-time leading rusher — a record Smith said Johnson had been looking forward to.
“He wanted to get the record, I know that,” he said. “Whenever someone has a chance to break a record, it means a lot to them.”
Johnson winds up his Chiefs career with 5,996 yards rushing and 55 touchdowns. He also caught 151 passes for 1,369 yards and six TDs.
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