Something has to be wrong. There has to be an explanation for the fact he’s quickly transformed from an elite running back into -- just another guy.
He did get a big, fat contract in the offseason. Maybe he got paid and checked out.
Or maybe he’s just done. It’s happened plenty of times with running backs, the position with the shortest shelf life in the NFL.
So who is it?
After his less-than-stellar start to the season, many Carolina Panthers fans would answer: DeAngelo Williams. Through eight games, he’s gained just 363 yards. But at least he has a couple good excuses: splitting carries in a new system.
Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson doesn’t have similar alibis, but he does have some similar stats. He’s gained 366 yards. That’s three more yards than Williams. And Johnson’s had the benefit of 46 more attempts.
So while Williams may just be a victim of a new, pass-first offense, there’s no clear reason for Johnson’s quick fade.
There’s certainly theories: He’s hinted at his offensive line, others have blamed the $56 million contract. Meanwhile, Panthers head coach Ron Rivera thinks it’s obvious:
"Probably the holdout," Rivera said Wednesday, referring to Johnson’s financially-related absence that didn’t end until the first day of September.
Rivera continued, "It’s impossible to simulate getting in shape for football season. There’s nothing like the pulling, the pushing, the tugging, the grabbing, the holding, the running, the catching. All that stuff is different."
Johnson’s gone from leading the league in rushing yards over the past three seasons combined, into a guy that averages just 3.0 yards a carry.
He racked up 39 touchdowns in those first three seasons. This year, he’s scored once.
Arguably the NFL’s most explosive player, Johnson’s longest run in 2011 is currently 25 yards.
When he was asked to explain Johnson's surprisingly slow season, Titans quarterback Matt Hasselbeck replied,
"He gets the ball, gets to the second level, you think -- Hey he might score, he’s got a chance to score. I think we’re just waiting for that, everyone’s expecting that kind of stuff."
And that’s the Panthers biggest concern when they face Johnson and the Titans Sunday. His stats are paltry compared to his potential and his past. But if Rivera’s right, and Johnson was affected by the holdout, a breakout game could come now that he'll be more than halfway through the regular season.
"He can break any run, any time. You always gotta account for him," Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson warned. "Don’t be fooled at all by his numbers."
But sometimes numbers don’t lie. For whatever reason or reasons, the Titans haven’t run the ball well. Tennessee has the NFL's 32nd-ranked rushing offense and that’s probably not good when you consider there’s just 32 teams in the league.
On the other hand, the Panthers haven’t been able to stop the run. Their 27th-ranked rushing defense may be a get-well elixir for Johnson.
For all the hype Cam Newton (who’s rushed for just 47 fewer yards than Johnson) will deservedly get coming into the game, the biggest key could be when the NFL’s most-exciting rookie isn’t on the field.
If Carolina can keep Johnson bottled up and stuck in his disappointing year, it could be a good start for what Rivera’s calling "the beginning of the season" for his Panthers.
"If you think about it, we’ve now gone through what probably equals up to going through OTAs, minicamp, training camp, preseason. Now we have an opportunity to start fresh and get going."