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David Johnson’s Burden

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Houston Texans v Tennessee Titans Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

Do you feel a sense of empathy toward David Johnson?

Like Mac, who tweeted out this stunning article from The Athletic about David Johnson’s bout with depression, I feel for the man.

Back in 2016, David Johnson’s historic season provided Cardinals’ fans like myself with an avalanche of goosebumps and an overwhelming sense of hope. The dude was an absolute stud who could slalom his way through defenses and stiff-arm would-be tacklers with stunning force.

Back then I likened David Johnson to an NFL version of Seabiscuit whose improbable burst into stardom in the late 1930s helped to lift the morale of millions of Americans during the throes of the country’s most crippling depression. You see —- David Johnson had found his version of Red Pollard in Bruce Arians, who keenly knew how to ride “The Humble Rumble” into the history books.

The Cardinals” David Johnson rushed and caught passes for a combined 2,118 yards and 20 TDs in 2016.

How sad and frightening it was during the Cardinals last game of the 2016 season to see David Johnson’s knee buckle and to watch him crumpled up on the turf in utter agony.

David Johnson in the days afterward said that his wife, Meghan, in horror at what she witnessed, pleaded with him to quit football. Johnson then assured the media that he had no intention of quitting football and that his knee injury was not as severe as was initially feared.

During that off-season, David Johnson’s rehab feats were going viral on YouTube, as he was performing explosive vertical jumps from a swimming pool and weight training mats.

Unfortunately, David Johnson suffered a season-ending wrist injury in Week 1 of the 2017 season when he incurred multiple fractures to the joint and a couple of the surrounding bones.

That turned out to be the last game that David Johnson would play under the tutelage of his mentor, Bruce Arians.

With the arrival of Steve Wilks as the new head coach in 2018, David Johnson was adamant that the Cardinals give him a lucrative contract extension. So adamant, in fact, that Johnson elected to hold out of the team’s mandatory mini-camp.

At the time, DJ’s holdout seemed very much out of character. It could have been that DJ was following the advice of his agent. But, DJ had a number of things working against him. He was coming off a season where he spent 15 of the 16 games on injured reserve. While he made a couple of big plays versus the Lions during his one injury-marred game, he also fumbled twice,

The Cardinals easily had the stronger leverage because if they waited to see how well DJ would bounce back, they had the safety net of the franchise tag to fall back on. Furthermore, the Cardinals’ recent history of awarding Tyrann Mathieu, coming of a second season-ending injury, with a lucrative 3 year contract at $13M a year, plus $31M in guaranteed money backfired and turned into a public relations nightmare for Steve Keim and the franchise.

Yet, not only did Keim and the Cardinals decide to honor DJ’s wishes, they awarded him with pretty much the exact same $13M a year contract with $30M guaranteed.

To make matters worse, DJ was now in the hands of the Cardinals’ new OC, Mike McCoy, who seemingly had no creative ideas as to how to maximize DJ’s unique talents. Far more often than not, DJ’s role was to run straight dives into 7 and 8 man boxes, behind an injury ravaged offensive line.

While DJ was happy to be paid what he and his agent believed he deserved, if there ever was an offense designed to break a star running back’s will, the Cardinals’ offense of 2018 under Mike McCoy was it. To DJ’s credit, he took his weekly poundings like a a man, but it was clear that he rarely had the opportunity to perform his open field jump cuts and patented slalom moves. The lowlight of the year, was Johnson being subbed out of a tight, potentially winnable game on a crucial 4th and 1 versus the Bears for missing a key block in pass protection on the previous play. The Cardinals did not convert the 4th down while Johnson was being tutored by the coaches on the sidelines.

DJ finished the 2018 season rushing for 940 yards at 3.6 yards per carry, catching 50 passes for 446 yards (8,9 ave.) and scoring a combined 10 TDs.

Under the circumstances, DJ’s 2018 numbers look pretty dang good.

In 2019, with the arrival of Kliff Kingsbury and his Air Raid, DJ had to try to adapt to a brand new offense (his 3rd in 3 years) and a new play caller (his 4th in 3 years).

Whether DJ was overwhelmed to begin with or whether Kingsbury’s offense was simply too nuanced for him to pick up quickly, DJ never looked completely comfortable or confident in the offense. When he suffered an ankle injury that sidelined him for a couple of games, the Cardinals traded for Kenyan Drake and anointed him as the lead RB for the remainder of the season.

If you read the article above from The Athletic about DJ’s depression, then you might be wondering, as I am, whether DJ’s depression began as far back as 2018, or at least certainly in 2019, because there came a point where the once bouncy playmaker looked slow and dispirited.

When DJ was made a part of the Cardinals’ trade for DeAndre Hopkins, I thought that it would be a boon for DJ because Bill O’Brien was as close a coach to Bruce Arians as there was in the NFL. There was no doubt in my mind that O’Brien sought out Arians’ advice at the 2020 NFL Combine before making the trade.

After the trade was announced, I wondered whether DJ could actually put up more yards and TDs for the Texans than DeAndre Hopkins could for the Cardinals, particularly if Bill O’Brien was able to maximize DJ’s abilities.

But, after a mere four games into the season, Bill O’Brien got fired.

Imagine this —-

Romeo Crennel became David Johnson’s 5th head coach in 4 years.

Tim Kelly became David Johnson’s 6th offensive coordinator in 4 years.

2020 was tough on David Johnson —- he suffered a concussion and a was placed on the reserve COVID-19 list in December. His stats were good —- when he could play —- rushing for 691 yards at 4.7 yards per carry and catching 33 passes for 314 yards (9.5 ave.) while scoring a combined 8 TDs.

However, one can just imagine the emotional toll it took on DJ to have to work his way through the backlash of the Hopkins trade (imagine trying to capture the hearts of crestfallen DeAndre Hopkins fans in heart of Texas), plus the firing of Bill O’Brien to go along with it. Bill O’Brien stuck his neck out for David Johnson. When O’Brien left the building, for DJ it must have felt like losing Bruce Arians and yet another scenario where things all crashed down on him and his team like a house of cards.

So, yes, I feel a profound sense of empathy for David Johnson, a talented player who found himself mired in the dysfunction of franchises moving in opposite directions. The Texans are still in disarray, while the Cardinals are showing manifestations of a new. exciting approach to winning football games.

Sure, DJ never quite looked the same in Cardinals red as he did back in 2016. His demise within the organization was perhaps as disappointing as the Honey Badger’s. But, one might imagine that the pressure for DJ —- living with Meghan’s fears about his short and long term health —- feeling the pressure of living up to the big contract that some fans and pundits believed he didn’t as yet deserve —- being asked in the first year of that contract to dive repeatedly into a brick wall —- and then having to adapt to his third new offense in three years —- created an enormous burden on David Johnson as a an NFL player, teammate, husband and father —- to the point where he for a few very dark months, he wasn’t able to function very well in any of his roles.

Those of us who know a little something about depression might understand how complicated and debilitating the disease is. There are numerous components to depression, the most pervasive of which are —- physical (depleted serotonin levels) ; psychological (tied to past traumas and issues with self-esteem); and emotional (the panic that comes with a loss of control).

As they say, “there are far more important things than football.” Let’s hope that David Johnson is winning, what to many, is the toughest battle of all.