2016 NFL MVP: Arizona Cardinals’ David Johnson will beat Ezekiel Elliott
coach Bruce Arians told his team Sunday that it probably wasn’t going to the playoffs.
“It was terrible to hear,” Cardinals quarterback said. “I don’t think that’s set in yet.”
Though the news devastated the Cardinals, running back ‘s terrific play has delighted fantasy football team owners. Johnson supplied those owners with 121 yards from scrimmage on 25 touches in Sunday’s 26-23 loss to the . He has eclipsed 100 yards from scrimmage in every game this season.
Johnson did the same thing in four of his five starts during his 2015 rookie campaign. He is proving to be irreplaceable since Arians plucked him from the third round of the 2015 NFL Draft.
Then he was just an undervalued speedster from Northern Iowa. Times have changed.
As much as his skills were somewhat of a secret last season, they are magnified now as the Cardinals passing game struggles. The opposition eyes him before every snap. Defenses shine a spotlight on Johnson, trying to keep him trapped at the line of scrimmage by enlisting speedy defensive backs in favor of linebackers to chase the running back.
“That’s definitely what is going on,” Johnson said. “Defenses are keying on me a little bit more, putting their safety or a defensive back on me. I really do have to focus a lot more on attention to detail. Am I making sure my routes are good? Making sure I’m using all of my advantages…my leverages. Making sure I know exactly what I’m doing, especially when there is a DB on me.”
Johnson now has a league-leading 1,830 yards from scrimmage and 15 scores this season. Those lofty stats have led him into the discussion for the league’s Most Valuable Player Award. He’s mentioned in the same breath as four-time Super Bowl champ and .
“It means a lot [to be considered for MVP],” Johnson said. “Right now it’s all about team. The loss today is all I’ve been thinking about. Thinking about the plays I might have messed up on. Thinking about the plays I could have definitely got more yards on or did a better route.”
Johnson’s 15 combined rushing and receiving scores are the most in the NFL. Those stats top NFL rushing leader Ezekiel Elliott. Elliott, an MVP candidate in his own right, has 113 fewer yards from scrimmage but only two fewer touches than Johnson.
And then there is that dominant Dallas offensive line. Johnson is succeeding despite poor offensive play from nearly everyone around him. Where Elliott has MVP candidate and fellow rookie Dak Prescott scorching defenses, Johnson has turnover-prone Carson Palmer slinging the pigskin. Palmer is always in a rush, due to an injured and poorly performing offensive line. Only has been sacked more this season than the aging veteran. Palmer has hit the turf 37 times and has accounted for 27 turnovers, throwing 13 interceptions and fumbling a league-high 14 times. The Cowboys are second in the NFL in time of possession and owns a +2 turnover ratio.
Johnson can be deployed at other skill positions and is a matchup nightmare for almost any defensive player. Against the Dolphins, Johnson lined up out wide with regularity and looked great doing it. On one occasion he had fans confused about which one of the Cardinals’ several skills pass catchers it was who caught the ball. His sticky hands snared an errant Palmer pass for a first down.
As ESPN’s Bill Barnwell wrote, the as a wide receiver.
“More than perhaps any other back in the league, the Cardinals basically just use Johnson as a regular old wide receiver a fair amount of the time,” Barnwell recently wrote while stating his case for Johnson over Elliott for the NFL MVP Award. “Atlanta does this with both Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, and other teams will line up receiving backs like Theo Riddick or Dion Lewis in the slot, but Johnson moves around the formation and runs route combinations alongside and Michael Floyd like he’s a wideout. Bruce Arians has no qualms about believing he has a mismatch with Johnson against just about any other player on the defensive side.”
Another point for Johnson could be if the Cowboys can clinch its first-round bye in Week 15. That might send Elliott to the bench in the next few weeks, giving Johnson extra snaps as he eclipses 2,000 yards from scrimmage.
Johnson, 24, has essentially been more important to the Cardinals offense than Elliott, 21, has been to the Cowboys’ unit.
The second-year speedster has accounted for 15 of the Cardinals’ 35 offensive touchdowns this season. Nearly 43 percent of the time, it’s Johnson standing in the end zone when the Cardinals score. Elliott has accounted for 32 percent of the Cowboys’ scores. Though Elliott’s 4.9 yards per carry trump Johnson’s 4.4 yards per tote, Johnson is averaging nine yards per touch while Elliott is averaging 5.4 yards when he touches the ball.
If this year’s hardware isn’t handed to quarterbacks like Brady, Rodgers, Derek Carr, or , Johnson is every bit as, or perhaps more, worthy for the NFL’s top individual trophy than Elliott.
The Cardinals’ next matchup is set for 4:05 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 18 against the at University of Phoenix Stadium. Johnson will then battle the and to end the season.