NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Chris Johnson draped a toy wrestling belt over his shoulder as he began his media session Friday with reporters.
The 2009 NFL rushing champ added a title to his collection moments before.
"I'm the championship of the locker room in rock, paper, scissors," Johnson said with a broad smile that drew laughter from teammates. "I worked so hard for it. I've been working for this since I was 3 years old. A lot of hard work — I give all my thanks to God."
For the record, Johnson advanced through the tournament by casting a rock, then a scissors in the final round to beat reserve running back Herb Donaldson. While Johnson joked about hard work being the reason he won the schoolyard game that hinges more on luck, he's been totally serious in the weight room and on the practice fields this offseason.
Johnson became the sixth player in NFL history with more than 2,000 rushing yards in a season with 2,006 in 2009. He followed that with 1,364 yards in 2010 as defenses entered every game with shutting Johnson down as their top priority. Johnson held out during training camp a year ago as the Titans installed a new offense and gained 1,047 yards on the ground, the lowest tally of his four-year career.
While 1,000 yards is a hallmark for some running backs, it's not the realization of Johnson's potential that got him more rushing yards (5,645) than any other player in the NFL since the Titans drafted Johnson in the first round in 2008.
Johnson previously preferred to train in the offseason in Orlando, Fla., but he has been an active participant in the Titans' offseason program that included three organized team activity practices this week and continues with three more OTAs next week.
Johnson, who was listed last season at 5-foot-11, 191 pounds, has gained eight-plus pounds of muscle this offseason by "eating healthy and lifting hard."
"That's something I decided to do," Johnson said. "I started working a month earlier this year. It was a situation where I wanted to be heavier this year and stay at a weight. Everything's been going good, coming in for the first OTAs. The first one is always tough, but once we get into it and get a little more OTAs under our belt, it will go pretty smooth."
Second year coach Mike Munchak said Johnson is demonstrating the kind of leadership by example that teams need from one of their best players.
"He looks good and he has a great attitude, so he is doing everything he needs to come back and have a great year," Munchak said. "I think that is encouraging for everyone to see and that is what you want from one of your top players is that kind of attitude which he has had. He has been awesome.
"He has been here five days a week, not three, not four," Munchak continued. "A lot of the weeks he has been here all five when that is not even necessary to do. I think he is realizing the benefits of being here and the benefits of being around his teammates. Like I said right from the beginning, that builds a lot of chemistry and a lot of camaraderie and I think that is one of the biggest things that he has helped us with."
Camaraderie can be built with laughs in the locker room, but faith between teammates is built on the practice fields. That belief can develop a rhythm for an offense that's critical to the timing of a handoff or the picking up a blitz to allow a completion.
Veteran quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, who, without benefit of an offseason program because of last year's lockout, threw for 3,571 yards in his first season with the Titans, said the extra practice time with everyone this offseason will make Tennessee better in 2012. Hasselbeck said he senses a surge in Johnson's production.
"He's doing everything that they're asking him to do, and he's here and that's a great start," Hasselbeck said. "He wasn't here at all last year. That's never easy when you're trying to mesh with new people. He's a great player and a professional, so I'm sure that he'll be back to being CJ."
The Titans have added veteran Pro Bowl guard Steve Hutchinson on the offensive line, and they drafted wide receiver Kendall Wright in the first round in April. The addition of Hutchinson is expected to help open more lanes for Johnson. Wright's addition will add another dimension to a strong group of receivers and, ideally, cause defenses to soften their focus on the running game.
"Since I got here, a lot of seasons, everybody has been keying on me," Johnson said. "So, having all the extra additions, I feel good that everybody is not going to be able to key on me."
It remains to be seen whether Hasselbeck or second-year QB Jake Locker will be the starter in 2012. Johnson said he feels good about both options and looks forward to doing good things for either player.
"I think they're both great quarterbacks," Johnson said. "The situation in the running back room, is I want to make it easier on them, but whatever quarterback it is, I know I've just got to do my job."