The Arizona Cardinals are jammed deep in a trashcan this season, but it’s still worth sifting through all that muck to take a closer look at running back David Johnson. Amidst all the other crap, Johnson is somehow having an MVP-caliber season.
Johnson’s received plenty of love, with the internet recognizing him as a top-tier running back comparable to Ezekiel Elliott and Le’Veon Bell, along with some cases here and there for him as this season’s MVP. And that’s the thing: Elliott and Bell play in offenses that are flush with other weapons, and therefore capable of more than giving the football away to their opponents. Johnson teams with Larry Fitzgerald, sure, but Carson Palmer has been ass, the offensive line has been held together by silly putty and thumbtacks, and the Cardinals’ other pass catchers are holograms. Johnson really is a one-man show.
And what a show it’s been: Johnson leads the league in yards from scrimmage (1,830) and combined rushing and receiving touchdowns (15). He’s had at least 100 yards from scrimmage in every game this year, which means he’s just three games away from becoming the first player in history to accomplish that feat for an entire NFL season. Johnson combines the power and speed of Elliott with some of the patience and shiftiness of Bell, and his value as a pass catcher isn’t limited to the screen game. He can create mismatches by lining up in the slot or split out wide, too.
NFL offenses have increasingly trended toward three- (or more) receiver sets in recent years. This has had the effect of largely devaluing running backs in the traditional sense, but big backs who can move and can catch lots of passes while lining up anywhere—as Matt Forte did for the Bears in 2014, when he had a running back-record 102 catches—are perfectly suited for this style of play.
Watch how Johnson changes directions several times without really slowing down:
Check out the ease with which he shakes Bills safety Corey Graham before nearly toe-tapping his way around linebacker Zach Brown:
Now watch him patiently get to the edge before destroying poor Tampa Bay cornerback Alterraun Verner with a stiff-arm and refusing to be taken down:
This is great. Johnson jump-stops his way around Bucs linebacker Kwon Alexander before accelerating in a flash to turn a short pass in the flat into a 58-yard gain:
This touchdown against Washington has a little bit of everything: the patience, the vision, the footwork to smoothly change directions without slowing down, the burst for the end zone once there’s an opening:
Johnson was recruited as a wide receiver before landing at Northern Iowa, so he came to the Cardinals as a third-round pick last year with some of that skill set and understanding. On this touchdown catch, Johnson was matched up against Vikings cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, but he is still able to gain just enough separation to get the ball because of the way he drops his hips as he makes his turn:
That’s how the Cardinals like to use Johnson—54 of his 69 catches this season have come beyond the line of scrimmage, according to Pro Football Focus. Elliott, by contrast, has 13 catches (out of 28 total) past the line of scrimmage.
Can Johnson win the MVP? Adrian Peterson is the only non-quarterback to win one going back to 2006, and that came in an extraordinary year in which Peterson rushed for 2,000 yards after coming off ACL surgery. Matt Ryan, Matt Stafford, and some jabroni named Tom are going to be tough for most voters to overlook. The same is true of Elliott, who happens to play on a winning team that’s frequently on national television. But anyone willing to root around the dreck to look at Johnson might discover he’s every bit as deserving, if only because he’s doing so damn much by himself.