While commenting on a recent post "Texans down N' Dirty: Ricky Hatton Edition" I became involved in an interesting (to me at least) conversation regarding Travis Johnson and thought I'd touch on the topic again briefly here. A lot of fans are unhappy with Johnson's performance on the field for the Texans so far, so it's natural to just assume that he's "terrible", has no talent, and our previous coaching staff and GM made a huge mistake in thinking he could be a solid player in the NFL. That's all well and good, but I personally feel we're letting Johnson off the hook a bit with that line of thinking.
During the conversation, Johnson's pre-draft weight and workout numbers were debated briefly so I've spent a little time trying to find his "real" weight and 40 yard dash time heading into the draft. In doing so I did find occasions where his listed 40 time was near 5.1 seconds (previously I had only seen him listed at running a 40 in the 4.8s), but I wasn't able to determine which is accurate. What I did find however was that there does appear to be a correlation between his listed playing weight and his 40 time on the sites i've found. What i've found was that on pages where Johnson's weight is listed at 300+ lbs he's also given credit for running a 5+ second 40 time. Likewise sites where he's listed under 300 lbs have him listed running a 40 in the 4.8 range if they have a time listed. The only thing I can guess at being the cause for these vastly differing results is that maybe he had two separate workouts, one where he was lighter and faster and the other either before he trimmed down for the scouts or after he worked out for scouts a bit and was pegged as needing to add a little bulk, so he started hitting Burger King heavily without giving consideration to how it'd affect his physical ability. The one thing all 2005 pre-draft pages have in common is that they all had Johnson listed as the #1 DT available by a comfortable margin, so we can hopefully take that as assurance that at least at some point Johnson was seen to have good measurables and ability in one form or another as DTs generally aren't projected that high for just game tape alone, and even then Johnson was seen as a bit of a one year wonder, as he made a big jump from his Junior to Senior year and had a few off the field issues as well. He had a terrific Senior season, but when you add his other somewhat average 3 years in college and the legal issues off the field, he probably would have been more of the type you'd take a flyer on in the late 2nd to 3rd round rather than a true 1st round prospect unless he was seen to have amazing athletic ability that would not be overlooked by very many teams. He was seen as by far the best available at a position the Texans wanted/needed to address, and 16th was about in the range he was projected to go even after he dropped a little because of the off the field concerns, so it definitely wasn't a case of the Texans reaching for a position of need.
So now that we've hopefully addressed his ability and potential entering the draft, that leaves us with the problem of why Johnson never grew into the player he was projected to 4 years ago. Sometimes rookies have a hard time adjusting to the size of the average NFL playbook and never live up to their potential because of simply not understanding their role and position on their team. Travis Johnson has decent technique and rarely misses assignments that give the offense opportunities to make the big play. When Johnson's task is to block a gap he usually does it moderately well, he doesn't leave any gaping holes in the line as some more aggressive players do at times. That's largely why I feel he's kept his starting job while he's been seemingly outproduced by his own backups. Johnson doesn't make a lot of plays, but he doesn't give up a lot alone either. On a defense that was as much a mess as Houston's has been the past 4 years, consistently *not* screwing up is good enough to hold down a starting gig. Travis Johnson generally knows what he's supposed to do on any given play and does at least the bare minimum that's expected of him most of the time. That also happens to be his biggest failing. While he's managed to stay on the field by not making huge critical mistakes, he hasn't really done much over that "bare minimum" in his four years with the Texans. While that level of dependability is needed on a defense with as many problems as the Texans have had recently, there's a point where it becomes a liability. When backups like Robinson or Bulman are in the game, their aggressiveness at times puts them out of position to make a play but it also puts them in many others when ordinarily they wouldn't be. Johnson for the most part is neither in nor out of the play; he may be standing in the exact spot doing the exact thing he's supposed to be doing, but he's not going after the ball carrier or QB unless they happen to run into him. He just seems to play the game halfheartedly at times, taking care of his responsibilities moderately well but otherwise appearing to be oblivious to the game around him. And then there are the rare occasions where he does actually have a hand in a play and he jumps up and sprints 20 yards faster than we've ever seen him run at any other time during his 4 years here as he dances a jig. If his on the field play matched the intensity of his celebrations between plays or his post game interviews, his stats would likely be doubled across the board.
Furthermore, it's my theory that he also takes his on the field work ethic home with him during the offseason, which explains why there has been very few improvements in his game over his four seasons in the NFL. Johnson and Bulman came into the league as part of the same draft class. Most know by now that Johnson was rated as the #1 DT prospect of that class; Bulman was rated #22-#23 on most boards. As they both came into the league, Johnson was clearly the more talented and contributed to some degree right away with the Texans, while Bulman struggled just to make regular season rosters. Four years later, however, the talent gap between them is much smaller. Many would even argue that they'd rather have Bulman put on a few pounds and start over Johnson now. The gap didn't narrow because Bulman was grossly undervalued while Johnson was overhyped, but rather because Bulman has become one of the hardest workers in the league while Travis likely trains with the same bare minimum principles that he applies during the season. If you could travel back in time and transfer Bulman's work ethic and passion for the game into Travis Johnson's body, we'd likely have a several time All-Pro by now.
Travis Johnson has had a disappointing NFL career so far, but he has no one to blame for it but himself. If he doesn't have the ability to play better than he has so far, there's nothing for him to be ashamed of, as he's just playing up to his ability regardless of where he was drafted. The truth is he came into the league with as much physical talent as any DT could hope for, but has let it go malnourished with a lack of hard work during the offseason and the proper desire and passion for the game that's required of all real NFL players. It's not any scout or coach's fault for his being overvalued in the draft or miscoached on the team. He just doesn't have the heart that's needed to truly make it at this level. Unfortunately he still has all that raw ability, so he will likely stick around for many years just coasting on natural talent rather than desire. He'll never come close to his full potential with this attitude, and unless he changes it he'll never be a fan favorite for any team he plays for. Ultimately fans will almost always prefer the overachieving nose-to-the-grindstone type players like Bulman over the extremely gifted but undisciplined and aloof players of Johnson's caliber.