When the Tennessee Titans drafted Chris Johnson in the first round from East Carolina last April, several "draft experts" questioned whether he would be much more than a role player with speed.
After all, they liked his 4.24 time in teh 40-yard dash, but questioned whether the 5-11, 200-pound Johnson could take the pounding necessary between the tackles to be much more than a specialist.
At the time, some of the comparisons for Johnson included solid backs like Philadelphia’s Brian Westbrook, Tampa Bay’s Warrick Dunn and, on the high end, a smaller version of Marshall Faulk.
Now, three-fourths of the way through his rookie season, Johnson is knocking on the door of 1,000 yards and to say the comparison stakes have been raised a bit would be an understatement.
“Probably as close as anyone, I would have to say Tony Dorsett, as much as size, speed, ability to explode and run through small holes and stuff like that, I would have to say Tony D,” said Johnson’s running backs coach Earnest Byner, raising the name of the Dallas Cowboys Hall of Famer, when asked who the rookie’s style most reminded him of.
When Cleveland Browns coach Romeo Crennel was asked who Johnson reminded him of, he rattled off former New England and New York Jets great Curtis Martin.
“The thing that stands out is his speed and his burst. He can accelerate. He can run away from people,” Crennel said. “He made a jump cut against somebody that I was watching you guys against, he was running and he jumped to his right and then turned those afterburners on and accelerated past people. So that’s the thing that really jumps out about him. We had Curtis Martin up in New England and with the Jets and I think he reminds me of Curtis a little bit, probably has more speed.”
Titans center Kevin Mawae blocked for both Martin and Johnson and sees the similarities, albeit with more speed on Johnson’s side.
“As far as finding the holes and hitting them, I would say absolutely. The only difference is that Chris Johnson has breakaway speed, and Curtis Martin didn’t,” Mawae said. “With Chris Johnson it’s one cut, and he’s in the open field. He makes one guy miss and there’s nothing but real estate.”
Evidence of that came on Thanksgiving Day when Johnson broke off a 58-yard touchdown against the Detroit Lions off a lead draw and raced untouched to the end zone.
“They ran a stunt and brought two backers to the weak side on a blitz. We caught the stunt just right, and as soon as I saw a flash of him, I told the d-lineman, [Shaun] Cody, ‘touchdown.’ I let him go, because as soon as I saw Chris out of the corner of my eye, I knew it was a touchdown.”
Quarterback Kerry Collins saw how special it was too.
“His acceleration was just phenomenal,” Collins said. “Judging from my standpoint, it didn’t look like there was much of a crease there. He really got small and found the hole and accelerated through it. It was pretty much a ‘Wow’ moment for me.”
Johnson now stands just 42 yards from another ‘wow’ moment, as he can become only the third rookie in franchise history to gain 1,000 yards.
Asked if he knew the other two, Johnson didn’t hesitate, “Eddie George and Earl Campbell. I knew that already.”
Or as Byner, himself a 14-year NFL veteran running back, says, “That’s big time. You’ve got Eddie George and Earl Campbell. That’s pretty good company there.”
And the fact that Johnson would do it on roughly the same number of carries as Campbell did in 1978 makes for another wow. Campbell entered his rookie year with 944 yards on 201 carries just before he went over 1,000 yards with his spectacular 199-yard, four touchdown Monday night performance against Miami.
Johnson currently has 958 yards on 203 rushing attempts.
“If you look at all the rookies who come in and run for over 1,000 yards, they all turned to have pretty good careers in the NFL,” Johnson said. “That was one of my goals coming in here, and to be so close to it, it feels good.”
His offensive linemen tried to get him to the 1,000-yard plateau on Thanksgiving.
“We were well aware of that,” Mawae said. “We actually knew that going into the fourth quarter last week. Actually my last series in the game, I had the PR staff call upstairs to see what he needed, but I didn’t know they had pulled him from the game already. But we knew he had the opportunity to get there.”
Actually, Johnson is not yet to the goals Byner set for him during one of their initial meetings.
“The goal that we had coming into this year was 1,400 yards, Rookie of the Year, and looking at the starter having 1,400 yards, and he’s been the starter all but one game this year,” Byner said. “Those were the expectations. He came in and one of the first meetings we had, we talked about the Rookie of the Year thing. He grasped it, and he’s really taken it and run with it _ literally.”
In their rookie years, Campbell finished with a flourish with 1,450 yards on 302 carries, while George ended up with 1,368 on 335 attempts.
“It’s still attainable. We have four more games left, but it depends on how it goes,” Johnson said. “If we clinch the playoffs and all that, I’m not sure how much I’ll play in the last couple of games. But it’s still within reach.”