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Lessening Larry's Workload

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work·horse  [wurk-hawrs] 

1. a horse used for plowing, hauling, and other heavy labor, as distinguished from a riding horse, racehorse, etc.
2. a person who works tirelessly at a task, assumes extra duties, etc.
3. Larry Johnson.
Few people exemplify "carrying the load" like Larry Johnson has for the Kansas City Chiefs. The Chiefs' dependence on LJ has been borne out in statistics (he carried the rock more times in 2006 than any running back in single-season NFL history), and in record (2007: 4-3 with Larry Johnson, 0-9 without him). It's sensible to rely on a player as talented and targeted as LJ.

But like all vices in life, moderation is key. But as the Chiefs' offense rotated around their run game during LJ's relatively short time as the feature back, and with virtually no talented running backs backing him up, the Chiefs threw caution to the wind and ran LJ approximately 900 times between Priest Holmes' injury in 2005 and LJ's own injury last year. As a result, they violated the well-known Curse of 370 -- give a running back more than 370 carries in a season, and watch him wilt before your very eyes.

It's casually known as the Eric Dickerson rule, implying that Dickerson's the only RB that's allowed to cross this plateau and remain a stud afterwards. LJ would love to redefine that rule himself, but in order for that to happen, the Chiefs must use him properly.
It's not enough to cut his numbers of carries down. You have to create an atmosphere that allows him to succeed. More on this after the jump.

First and foremost, the running back has to have the sheer drive to bring himself back. Few of us around here doubt LJ's drive to prove everyone wrong -- but just in case you did, Charles Robinson of Yahoo! Sports dispels those notions immediately with a piece posted yesterday:

Larry Johnson tugged a baseball cap down on his forehead and shuffled his formerly busted left foot to the melody rising from his locker. Listening to a Jay-Z fusion of Frank Sinatra’s "My Way" on Tuesday, he slid his shoulders toward the back of the room, drawing a few snickers from onlookers.

It was a poignant anthem for a player looking to re-establish a groove with the Kansas City Chiefs. His groove. His rhythm: 752 combined carries in 2005 and 2006 – including 11 30-carry games, before a prolonged contract holdout and broken foot broke the needle off the record.

Dwayne Bowe had a front row seat for Tuesday’s return of the groove, but the young wideout pretended not to notice. In time, his smile would give him away. Seeing this from Johnson, how could it be anything but a good thing?

We've seen it time and time again, that Larry Johnson's passion to get on the field and succeed rarely slows. Hitting the practice field approximately five minutes after inking his new contract, waving that Chiefs flag like a banner during the Bengals game, finishing every run in OTAs. LJ's personal engine is nothing if not highly-powered.

But no matter how obvious it is, LJ must have his carries divided up with his backups. People forget that LJ was forced to run the ball so much in 2006 because he had nobody to run the ball behind him. After Bennett went down with an injury, that left over a couple scrubs, including the dearly departed Derrick Rose, and the few carries they were afforded, they fumbled away, figuratively and literally.

That is not the case in 2008. Having expended a third round pick brilliantly on a player who should have been drafted well before, the Chiefs hope to run speedster Jamaal Charles ten times a game. A lot has been said about Charles on Arrowhead Pride, so I have little to add. I will say that he will measure up to be a better back-up than the consistently inconsistent Michael Bennett was (not to mention less injury prone).

Lost in the Charles hoopla is the fact that Kolby Smith sturdily played his role in 2007 to the approval of Chiefs nation. His few games starting were as impressive as they were unexpected. Smith is neither a speedster nor a brutal rock-pounder, but a reasonable compromise between them. His sure hands and able blocking make him a great third down back. In fact, the LJ-Charles-Smith trio provide the Chiefs more versatility and more promise at the RB position they've had in modern history.

The Chiefs must also be sure the passing game blossoms enough to prevent stacked defenses. So in every way, the development of Brodie Croyle affects every aspect of this team. For the eight games Larry Johnson was able to play in 2007, defenses completely stacked the box with no concern for Huard's lackluster play or as Brodie Croyle learned the ropes.

As it was eventually decided shortly before LJ went out with his foot injury, the only times he was able to find any room were in situations where the pass had spread out the defense. The Chiefs were in their own personal bizarro-world: instead of the run being used to set up the passing game, their offense had to function the other way around to free up LJ.

Thanks to Dwayne Bowe, a year's experience for Brodie Croyle, and the continued excellence of Tony Gonzalez, what was once a dream in 2007 may become reality soon rather than later. The Chiefs may be able to build a legit passing game. Between Webb, Darling, and Franklin, there's a possibility a legit #2 WR emerges from the dust as well to keep defenses honest. Cottam and Allan are both tight ends that can haul in passes. But again, this all depends on Croyle staying smart and staying healthy in order to become a respectable threat.

But key for both Croyle and LJ's emergence is the offensive line, which must finally afford the skill position players some room for error. With Turley, Welbourne, Terry, and Wiegmann getting pummelled on the right side, Chiefs quarterbacks were sacked 55 times, which doesn't include every knockdown, hurry, and knocked-down passes. Receivers had to run shorter routes, checkdowns barely had a moment to turn their heads, and any additional blockers in the backfield found themselves matching up against defensive tackles instead of blitzing corners.

Nobody can succeed in that situation. The Chiefs are banking a lot of their future on Branden Albert, the first rookie they plan on starting on the OL since... anybody want to guess that one? If Albert can hold down the left tackle position, this offense is one step closer to provide LJ the proper holes, and Croyle the proper protection, and this offense can improve exponentially.

The Chiefs must also be careful not to rush LJ back too quickly. He's personally admitted that he feels "physically 100%," but that doesn't factor in any possible hestitation to head into the trenches as the offensive line struggles to open a hole. That doesn't factor in lying on the bottom of a pile. That doesn't factor in pulling in a pass from Croyle with a linebacker bearing down. It doesn't factor in a lot of things.

Don't be surprised to watch the Chiefs lean predominantly on Kolby Smith for a couple of the season's first games, as Jamaal Charles gets used to the NFL, and Larry Johnson regains his bearings. But once he does, he's going to need all of the above factors to remain in place for him to wreak havoc on NFL defenses like he has before.