NASHVILLE, TN, Oct. 19, 2008 — When the Titans selected Chris Johnson with the 24th overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft, they knew they were getting a player who posted the fastest 40-yard dash of any prospect with a time of 4.24 seconds.
Chris Johnson (right) and LenDale White are quickly becoming the NFL's top running back tandem. The pair helped the Titans register a franchise-record 332 yards rushing in a 34-10 Titans win at Kansas City.
Wanting to add speed to their offense, Johnson fit the bill. He looked fast in person and blew past defenders on film. But coming out of a smaller program, critics said the Titans took Johnson too high, insisting they should have drafted a wide receiver rather than taking a chance on the East Carolina product.
Little did they know Johnson would make an immediate impact out of the gate, becoming one of the top prospects for Offensive Rookie of the Year honors early on in the 2008 season.
The 5-foot-11, 200-pound running back ranks first in the AFC and fourth in the NFL with 549 rushing yards and four touchdowns. Averaging 5.3 yards per carry, Johnson has registered seven plays of 15 or more yards and gained 10 or more yards on 17 plays in 2008.
While leading the team in rushing in all six games this season, he found the end zone three times in September, including a career-best two rushing touchdowns in Tennessee's 30-17 victory over Minnesota at LP Field. For his efforts, he was named the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Month, becoming the first Titans player to be named Rookie of the Month since Jevon Kearse earned defensive honors in December of 1999.
"He's a special guy with special talents, and we just have to find ways to give him the ball," head coach Jeff Fisher said. "Once you get him the ball in the open field, he's fairly dangerous."
Johnson's speed and quickness make him a threat to go the distance anytime he touches the ball. Once he gets past the line, Johnson's quickness and cat-like moves often force linebackers and defensive backs to guess which way he is going next.
Defenders only hope they guess right.
"I just know if I make him miss, nine times out of 10 I'll make it to the end zone," Johnson said. "They really don't know which way I'm going, so a lot of times they just try to get a real good angle on me."
Getting a good angle on Johnson is easier said than done. The rookie running back gave Titans fans their first glimpse of his speed during the preseason opener at home vs. St. Louis, taking a handoff and bolting 66 yards untouched up the middle for a touchdown. It was an electrifying run that had Fisher and offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger smiling on the sideline.
"I'm sure that was their worst nightmare," Fisher said of the Rams' defense watching Johnson take off to the races. "That's why he's here. It's nice to have that talent as a weapon on offense, someone who can just go like he can. I would like to think this is not just an isolated play. I'd like to think we're going to see more of those out of him."
It was anything but an isolated moment. Johnson scampered 18 yards on his first regular season carry against Jacksonville, finishing with 93 rushing yards on 15 carries (6.2 yard avg.) and caught three passes for 34 yards, including a 7-yard TD reception from Vince Young in Tennessee's 17-10 opening day victory at LP Field. Johnson's 93 rushing yards were the most by a rookie on opening day since Earl Campbell rushed for 137 for the Oilers against Atlanta in 1978.
In Week 2 at Cincinnati, Johnson took off on a 51-yard run, the team's third-longest run since the 1999 season and the longest since Travis Henry broke loose for a 70-yarder in a win at Philadelphia in 2006. Johnson finished with 109 yards rushing that day, averaging 5.1 yards per carry in a 24-7 Titans win.
But last Sunday was Johnson's coming out party. He rushed for a career-high 168 yards, including a 66-yard touchdown run in Tennessee's 34-10 victory at Kansas City. Johnson combined with LenDale White (149 yards, 3 touchdowns) to help the Titans register the most rushing yards (332) in franchise history.
The pair is quickly becoming known as the top running back tandem in the NFL.
"It meant a lot because I'll go out there and have a good game, and then he won't have a good game," Johnson said of White, "then he'll go out and have a good game and I won't have a good game. So it was nice to really come together. We've got chips on our shoulders and we really want to go out there and show everybody what we've got."
When he's not carrying the ball, Johnson's presence as a slot receiver or catching passes out of the backfield forces defenses to stay honest.
"Y'all know my speed can make a difference," he said. "Me being out there in the backfield, it gives them an extra dude they've got to account for."
Johnson expected to succeed in the NFL, but even he could not have scripted his start any better.
"This is the best way I could have imagined it happening," said Johnson. "I didn't think it would be like that, but God has blessed me to keep going out there and having good games. The game is a lot faster than in college, but if you just read your reads right and run hard every time, you'll be alright."
One thing is certain -- once Johnson finds open space, he won't be caught.
"I'm sure defenses have studied a lot of my long plays and once I get to the second level, they're already running back with good angles on me. But I've still never gotten behind the defense and been caught, so there's no worries."
And what about Johnson's critics who said he was taken too high?
"It just makes me have a chip on my shoulder every time I go out there because I feel like even though I went at 24, I lasted too long, but it worked out for the best," he said. "I go out there with a chip on my shoulder every day. It motivates me a lot. I went at 24, but 23 players still went in front of me. That's a lot of players."