Cardinals running back David Johnson finishes off a 58-yard reception last weekend against the Buccaneers.
When David Johnson – a "tall, skinny thing" at the time – was coming out of high school, all he did was spend time catching balls on a JUGS machine and running routes.
He was going to be a wide receiver.
That's what Northern Iowa thought they were getting when they brought Johnson in, until he bulked up during his redshirt year finally lifting weights, and injuries in the program led the coaches to move Johnson to running back.
So on Sundays, when Johnson leaks into the flat awaiting a Carson Palmer pass, or races down the sideline and flicks up his hands at the last
second, making a catch on a ball the defender never sees coming, know there is history there.
"It does benefit me," Johnson said, flashing his trademark smile.
Of all the hype surrounding Johnson before this, his second season, perhaps the most underplayed aspect was Johnson's dangerous receiving abilities. He is strong, his feet are nimble and as a running back, he is everything a team might want.
Add in the pass-catching skills – Johnson had 36 receptions for 457 yards and four touchdowns in limited time as a rookie – and it's easy to see "he's one of those rare guys that can do both," Bills coach Rex Ryan said.
"He understands it," Palmer said. "He's very cerebral. He understands what is going on with every positon around him, which is rare for a receiver, much less a running back playing receiver. It is like talking to a receiver when you talk to him conceptually about things."
Johnson had 98 yards on three catches Sunday against the Buccaneers (after his 4-43 day against the Patriots) but his coach saw only mistakes. Bruce Arians called Johnson out for costing himself and the team 100 yards and a couple of touchdowns for route mistakes that Johnson could only shake his head about later.
"I just messed up," Johnson said. "I can't even explain it. It's just boneheaded plays."
Two came back-to-back on what turned into a field goal for the Cardinals. On second-and-11 at the Tampa 18-yard line, Johnson, split wide right, ran the wrong route and didn't cut in front of cornerback Brent Grimes near the goalline on a play that should've been intercepted, since Palmer threw it to the spot Johnson was supposed to be.
On the following snap, Johnson came out of the backfield and read linebacker Lavonte David wrong, staying outside when a cut inside – and with Palmer looking for him – would have meant a big gain if not a score.
Such errors were already worked on Wednesday. "Just corrections," Arians said. "It's called coaching. He had a heck of a practice."
The plays stood out because Johnson is arguably the best receiver among running backs in the league. There were plenty of examples of that Sunday too, whether it was the short pass he turned into 16 yards after a huge stiff-arm on linebacker Kwon Alexander or the jump cut he used to spring for a 58-yard catch-and-run or the beautiful 24-yard catch down the sideline that even Larry Fitzgerald would have been proud to make.
"There aren't too many backs that can do what he does," Fitzgerald said, adding with a smile, "We don't want him to get too comfortable in the passing game, but when it's there for him, we want him to make his plays."
Comfortability is relative. In Arians' offense, Johnson – like Andre Ellington before him – has had to learn a little more than the typical running back. It's not just routes, but some option routes, with the need to make a decision based on the defender.
Johnson believes he's handled it well enough, and what's more, he loves it.
"Defenses don't really know what to do," Johnson said. "Do they put a linebacker on me, do they put a corner on me, what do they do? That's what I do like about it, and I'm glad Bruce gives me that chance."
Linebacker Kevin Minter considered for a moment what it would be like to try and cover Johnson at his position.
"Besides trip him?" Minter said with a chuckle. "Gotta line up and hope for the best. Hope the safety is paying attention over the top."
Images of Cardinals fans during the Week 2 win over Tampa Bay