The running backs that made this series belong to an exclusive club. They were entrusted by their coaches enough to surpass or to see 400 rushing attempts in a season. Can you imagine a team giving a running back that kind of opportunity nowadays? However ludicrous you think that idea is, there is no disputing that it happened. It has happened five times. It even happened as recently as 12 years ago. You can debate amongst yourselves whether it will ever happen again. My point here is not to prove its likelihood of recurrence. Instead, I would like to investigate the ”why, how” and what was at the heart of this when it happened. Each case will be different. As each player’s legacy has a different flavor before and after they joined The 400 Club.
Larry Johnson (416 rushing attempts)
Team Record: 9-7
Head Coach: Herm Edwards
Offensive Coordinator: Mike Solari
Rushing Yards: 1,789 yards
Yards Per Rush: 4.3
Yards Per Game: 111.8
Before: Johnson was not an instant NFL success. He had just 140 carries in his first two seasons. The Chiefs HC at the time was Dick Vermeil. He was outraged at the organization for drafting RB insurance rather than a defensive player. Nick Barnett, Nnamdi Asomugha, Boss Bailey, and Charles “Peanut” Tillman went soon after Johnson in 2003 draft. Vermeil even told Johnson to grow up and “take off the diapers.”
Johnson was a 6-foot-1/235 pound wrecking ball that teams could build their offense around. The main culprit for his lack of work was starter Priest Holmes. This was despite Johnson being a first round pick and Holmes being a former UDFA. Then Holmes missed half the year during Johnson’s second season. He handled 141 of his 142 touches in that second season’s last games. Vermeil finally relented in Johnson’s third season and made him the full-time starter. The Chiefs then road him by giving him 336 rushing attempts and additional 49 targets for 33 receptions. Kansas City went 10-6 but finished second in the division. They missed the playoffs and Vermeil retired.
During: With the always boisterous Herm Edwards now at helm Johnson was once again the focal point of the scheme. The throttle was dropped and the 400 carry threshold was surpassed. Johnson also saw 66 targets! He turned those into 41 receptions for 410 more yards.
Johnson exceeded 100 yards rushing in 11 games. He even had four games with over 150 yards. He peaked with 172 yards on 27 carries in a 14-point defeat of the St. Louis Rams. He had two games with three TDs. Both of those games were tight contests won by seven and five points respectively. He had three of those 100-yard games in losses. He rumbled for 127 yards on 26 attempts in a 6-9 game versus Denver, for his best effort in a loss.
The Chiefs made the playoffs! However, Peyton Manning’s Colts bounced them in the wild round. During the 23-8 season-ending licking, Johnson was held to just 32 yards on 13 carries. He had a long rush of six measly yards. The Colts went on to win Super Bowl XLI.
Aftermath: How does one follow a 400 carry season? In Johnson’s case, it was with a contract dispute and some very real trade rumors. Eventually, the Chiefs made him the highest paid RB based on average per year salary (at the time). His extension was for six years and 45 million dollars with 19 million guaranteed. It was the largest contract in Chiefs franchise history at the time.
A foot injury befell Johnson at the mid-season point, and he was placed on IR. With just 158 rushing attempts (19.8 APG) on the season and a 3.5 YPA average. You can decide for yourself if that 416 carry season hurt his durability moving forward. The Chiefs made the playoffs during that aforementioned historical season. They were not built to make a run. They paid Johnson to appease the crazily loyal Kansas City fan base.
Meanwhile, their starting QBs on the season were Damon Huard and Brodie Coyle. They did still have the ageless wonder Tony Gonzalez at tight end. However, their outside “weapons” were Dwayne Bowe and Eddie Kennison. And that is what a 4-12 team smells like.
Johnson’s best post 400 club season was two in 2008. This was also after Kansas City drafted Jamaal Charles. Johnson had 193 carries in 12 games (all starts). He missed one game due to suspension for violating team rules. He was then inactive for two more weeks and was suspended an additional game by the NFL for allegedly spitting his drink in a woman’s face.
After a few more suspensions Johnson was released midway through the 2009 season. He did appear in seven games for Cincinnati to end the season but failed to find the end zone or ever regain his peak form.