By Rick Maese
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 17, 2010; D01
While popular opinion might suggest that running back Larry Johnson was brought to town to back up the Washington Redskins' perennial starter Clinton Portis, one of Johnson's former coaches has a bold prediction.
"He will take over the running back position," said Dick Vermeil, who coached Johnson in Kansas City from 2003 to '05. "That's what I think. He'll push that guy right out of a job. Larry Johnson will work all week -- he'll work Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday -- and he'll make you start him on Sundays."
Though Johnson was often a chief source of headaches, two of his former Kansas City coaches sang his praises this week, both dismissing the notion that at 30, Johnson is no longer an effective NFL running back. In fact, both see favorable circumstances in Washington that could help Johnson return to Pro Bowl form.
"His back is against the wall, and for him, that's when he's at his best," said Herm Edwards, who coached in Kansas City from 2006 to '08. "Most people think he's done, he's finished, he's too old. That actually helps him. He wants to prove people wrong. This is his third team in two years, he knows this could be it. You don't need more incentive than that."
The Redskins signed Johnson last week to a three-year contract. Portis, who missed the final eight games last season after suffering a season-ending concussion, returns for his ninth NFL season. He's been the Redskins' starter since joining the team in 2004. While Johnson has spoken about the pair operating like a tandem, Vermeil sees much more potential.
"I think they got a great steal in this guy," Vermeil said. "If they have any sort of offensive line, I really believe he'll be the starting running back there, and he'll do very well. If anyone thinks it's some union job and a guy gets to start just because he's the incumbent, nuh-uh. Larry will make him work. [Portis] will have to fight to even hope to keep his job."
There are several factors that would seem to make Johnson an unlikely starter -- or even a consistent impact player -- in the league again.
For starters, Johnson has made as many headlines for his off-the-field transgressions as anything he's done on the field in recent years. He's complained about playing time, threatened a training camp holdout and has been arrested four times for domestic violence-related incidents. He was released by the Chiefs midway through last season for comments he made about coaches on Twitter and for using an epithet around members of the media.
Despite all of this, Edwards and Vermeil warn against misjudging Johnson's character, even though each was left holding the mop, pulling clean-up duty after Johnson's public messes.
"This was a very productive guy who didn't handle himself right with all of his actions off the field," said Edwards, now an analyst for ESPN. "He's not a bad guy, not a bad locker room guy. He's good around the other players but often put himself in the wrong place at the right time, if that makes sense."
Vermeil was the Chiefs' coach when the team drafted Johnson, the son of McDonough High School's former state-title winning coach Larry Johnson Sr., in the first round out of Penn State in 2003. Though Vermeil made clear that he preferred drafting a defensive player, he also knew that he had something special in Johnson. It's a shame, he says, that Johnson's amassed only two 1,000-yard seasons in his seven-year career.
"He's sometimes his own worst enemy," Vermeil said. "He's a good person. He can, when he wants, have a tremendous work ethic."
Another strike against Johnson would seem to be his age, but Edwards and Vermeil are quick to point out that Johnson's legs don't have the mileage on them that you typically find with a veteran running back.
Though he's two years older than Portis, Johnson has 755 fewer carries. While the two might begin training camp sharing the workload, Vermeil expects Johnson to open eyes at practice. He says Johnson helped push Priest Holmes, the Chiefs' incumbent running back in Kansas City seven years ago, and Vermeil says he'll push Portis now -- until he surpasses him.
"I've never seen a kid compete so hard to prove that he's as good as the starter," he said. "And if that starter isn't the Priest Holmes-type who will match the effort every single day, Larry Johnson will take his job. I don't know that much about Clinton Portis, but I know what Larry was like. He ran mean. In practices, he ran like he just plain didn't like his teammates."
There will also be questions about how exactly Johnson will fit into Coach Mike Shanahan's new offense. Hampered by injuries and an inconsistent offense, the Redskins fielded the league's fifth-worst running attack last season. With Shanahan's history of relying on strong backs and stronger blockers, many think the ground game will be one of the first things the new coaching staff looks to change.
But when he was coaching in Denver, Shanahan's zone blocking scheme favored cut runners who could move laterally and then shoot through a hole. In Kansas City, Johnson was considered a downhill runner whose strength was powering his way between the tackles. Edwards called Johnson a "pure insider runner," and said Johnson suffered when teams stacked the box against him.
But Vermeil sees more versatility. He said Johnson became a downhill runner because that's what the Kansas City offense called for. When Johnson was drafted, Holmes ran the show in Kansas City and when Johnson took over in the backfield, he was plugged into an offense that was still built around Holmes.
"The truth is, he can run anything you give him to run," Vermeil said. "When he first came to us, he wasn't sure what type of runner he was. But within our running game, once he got going, he could really run anything."
The real question, the coaches say, could be about Johnson's motivation and his level of commitment. Johnson has already earned the bulk of the money that he'll make in his career. Though the Washington contract is modest and incentive-laden, Edwards thinks Johnson has joined the Redskins for another reason altogether.
"This is his last shot, and I think he has to know that," Edwards said. "This is different for him than the past several years. He's not the guy and that might be good for him. Now he has to go compete again to be successful. When he's the guy, he kept getting in his own way. He wasn't always doing the right things."