NASHVILLE – More than halfway through the season – and with just four catches to his name – Marcus Johnson was turning into the football version of a playground legend.
How many glowing reports had come out of this year’s Tennessee Titans training camp – closed to the public – about Johnson’s eye-opening performances? How often had it been reported that Johnson had produced yet another big day, looking like August’s most consistent receiver while building chemistry with quarterback Ryan Tannehill?
Something real was clearly going on, as Johnson worked his way up the depth chart, transforming himself from a fringe player to a roster lock even as he competed with as talented a group of pass-catchers as the Titans have had in years.
Then, just days before the season opener, came the hamstring injury, one that knocked Johnson out of the first four games. It was an ominous sign for a player whose promising career had all too often been stunted by injury setbacks in his first four seasons.
All of a sudden, it became easy to wonder if Johnson’s greatest moments as a Titans player had already occurred – in the dog days of summer. It became easy to think Johnson might become just another one of the many skilled players over the years – joining the likes of Tre McBride, Deontay Burnett, Chase Coffman or Dalyn Dawkins – to excel in training camp and the preseason, only to slide into oblivion without ever making a regular-season impact.
Johnson’s first game back after the hamstring injury was a bright spot, as he caught three passes for 52 yards in a victory over Jacksonville.
Since then, however, Johnson had gone dark. Heading into Sunday’s game against the Saints, Tannehill had targeted Johnson seven times over four games, resulting in one catch for a measly eight yards. In Tennessee’s Week 9 win over the Rams, Johnson played just seven snaps – three on offense, four on special teams.
The story of the training-camp legend was fast losing its luster.
“The last couple of weeks have been tough,” Johnson said. “I just felt like I kind of hit a wall, (but) I just locked in, kept grinding it out, trusting in my routine.”
Hand it to Johnson for taking advantage of opportunity at a most opportune time.
A Titans team playing without star running back Derrick Henry and seven-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Julio Jones looked sluggish – at best – on its first two possessions. There was a third-down false start on Anthony Firkser, a third-down drop by A.J. Brown and two running plays that gained a combined three yards. All of which led to two three-and-outs.
The play that finally sparked the Titans? It was a quick slant to Johnson, who looked like he’d turned back the clock to training camp, taking the pass and flying 50 yards downfield to set up the Titans’ first field goal.
“It was awesome to really see him get going a little bit,” Tannehill said of Johnson. “When he caught that early one, coming underneath and then gunning for the open space, I knew he had some juice, so I was excited to see that happen.”
It was a sign of things to come for Johnson, who finished with five catches for 100 yards in the Titans’ 23-21 win, the third-most productive day in his 40-game NFL career. On an afternoon when no other Titans wide receiver – including Brown – made more than one catch, it was Johnson who carried the passing attack.
One possession after the 50-yard burst, Johnson caught a 17-yard pass that helped lead the offense to its second field goal. He came through again on the Titans’ last possession of the first half, snatching a 16-yard reception that started Tennessee on a touchdown drive.
Just to show it wasn’t a first-half fluke, Johnson added two more catches in the second half and – yet again – the receptions helped guide the Titans to scores.
“It feels great,” Johnson said. “It’s a confidence booster. I obviously believe in myself, but sometimes you need to prove yourself right and to anybody else who needs to see that. I think it was big for me, and I’m thankful to be able to contribute like that.”
Added Titans coach Mike Vrabel: “It was huge. It was what we needed to see from Marcus, and I think Marcus needed to see a little bit of that for himself. He had a really good game for us.”
Does Johnson’s performance mean he’s successfully removed himself from the training-camp legend players, those whose names are now so hard to recall? Not necessarily. The 27-year-old will need a few more relevant regular-season games to leave that reputation behind.
But Johnson will – without a doubt – have more opportunities. Jones, after all, will miss at least two more games on injured reserve, and who knows just how healthy he’ll be at that point? Brown will continue to be blanketed in coverage, as the only proven skill-player threat on the offense. Chester Rogers and Nick Westbrook-Ikhine are nice complementary role players, but neither has the explosive potential of Johnson.
“We need somebody to step up and fill that role for us,” Tannehill said. “We’ve got a guy like Marcus that’s able to do that, and that creates more balance for us offensively and we can run our offense.”
The fact that such praise is coming in the middle of the regular season, as opposed to the weeks leading up to it, is welcome news for Johnson and the Titans’ offense.
“God’s timing is perfect,” Johnson said of his productive outing. “I needed it. The coaches needed to see it, and of course my teammates. I’m just thankful to be able to contribute and help us win.”