TEMPE, Ariz. — Optimism is easy to find at most NFL get-togethers in late May. Still, the Arizona Cardinals haven’t been able to scrounge up much of it since the first regular-season snaps of 2018.
That’s especially true for running back David Johnson.
It’s been nine months since there has been such relief and genuine hope coming from one of Arizona’s most talented players.
Johnson is not only talented but a player who — despite misunderstandings of what head coach Kliff Kingsbury does with the running game — plays a position at the crux of what the Cardinals’ new spread offense can do.
“It’s been going great. I think it’s going to be a really good offense,” Johnson said Wednesday as organized team activities commenced. “I think it’ll be similar to 2016 but probably more shotgun’s our home, which is good because I did that in college and we had a running quarterback. I think I’ll be utilized as a running back and receiver.
“I think it’s going to be really helpful, only having to worry about one guy trying to tackle you as opposed to three, four guys loading the box.”
There are a handful of reasons Johnson has that expectation.
The dual-threat abilities of rookie quarterback Kyler Murray is one. A more diverse roster helps with the potential to play with multiple backs and with packages of different types of receivers and tight ends. And then, simply, there’s more space with the formations spreading the defense out.
“We’re just doing the base plays right now. There’s so many weapons we added to the offense, and I think that’s going to help us out,” Johnson said.
More than anything, put money on Kingsbury getting the ball to Johnson in the passing game more.
It’s a refreshing reset for all of the returning Cardinals, but for Johnson, the relief is unlikely paralleled after last year.
By the end of a 24-6 season-opening loss to the Washington Redskins on Sept. 9, 2018, Johnson was fresh off the field and apologizing for his poor performance. He’d just recorded 67 yards of offense and a touchdown, but with a contract extension in hand days prior, he knew what came with it.
“I’m not even thinking about the contract,” Johnson said at the time. “I’m thinking about the loss, what I did wrong, mental errors, dropped catches and how bad I played.”
That was only the beginning. Through first-year head coach Steve Wilks’ lone season, Johnson became a controversial figure — hardly because of his own doing.
He was benched on a key third-down play in a Week 3 loss to the Chicago Bears and took it in stride.
All year, Johnson was either under-utilized or simply misused under former offensive coordinator Mike McCoy and his interim replacement, Byron Leftwich. He ran up the middle of an injured-plagued offensive line often. Too few times, he split out as a receiver, something that helped him burst onto the scene in 2016 under former head coach Bruce Arians.
The 76 targets of Johnson in the passing game were closer to his rookie season in which he wasn’t a starter until late in the year (58 targets) than to his 120 targets in 2016. That season, he rushed for 1,239 yards and tallied 879 receiving yards with 20 combined touchdowns.
By the end of 2018, Johnson was still apologizing, taking the blame for a lost year despite hitting 940 rushing yards and 446 receiving.
“This has been such a tough year for me,” Johnson said in mid-December, when the Cardinals were 3-10. “I’ve been really trying to figure out and trying to do everything I can to help out the offense and do my part. Going into this season I had high hopes and everyone expected more out of me, and I didn’t live up to it.”
Kingsbury’s hire wasn’t just about finding a mentor for a young quarterback (though that young quarterback has since changed).
It was also about getting the most out of Johnson, who under Arians looked like a player who just might alter the expectations and job description of every NFL running back.
The trick is bringing that back out of him.
“You can tell he has that in him from college, that he’s run routes before,” Kingsbury said Wednesday. “Chase (Edmonds) is talented as well, catching the football and has got some explosiveness. With DJ, just his size, a guy that big who moves like he does, it’s rare.”
— Murray said he felt like his Wednesday practice was much improved from the past two half-weeks of on-field work.
“I told coach, I was just more comfortable today. The past two weeks were not as crispy as I’d like them to be but today was a lot better, for sure.”
— Kingsbury on rookie receiver Andy Isabella’s work ethic: “They said he was up here Saturday, Memorial Day (weekend) running routes, so that’s next-level, especially with the weather we had,” Kingsbury said. “I figured he’d be at ‘The W,’ all that money from a new contract.”
— Kingsbury said there are open position battles across the offensive line, including at center, where veteran A.Q. Shipley is coming off an ACL injury and Mason Cole is fresh off his rookie year of starting all 16 games.