The old-school/new school analogy doesn't just equate to Johnson making the rest of the league look like history as he blisters toward Eric Dickerson's single-season rushing record of 2,105 yards (Johnson is at 1,730 with two games remaining). It's also fitting because it's a turning of the page, as Johnson is now holding the baton that passed from San Diego's LaDainian Tomlinson to Minnesota's Adrian Peterson to him.
"It's always going to come a day when you've got to pass that torch," Johnson said this week. "There's always going to be guys coming into the league trying to be the man, so you've got to enjoy it while you have it."
Johnson has it.
Coincidentally, the second-year player now referred to as C.J. will be staring across the sideline Friday at Tomlinson, who once was Johnson -- in a different sort of way. Now 30, Tomlinson clearly is in the twilight of his Hall of Fame-caliber career, totaling roughly a third (670 rushing yards) of Johnson's 2009 season output.
So their face-off Christmas night in Nashville will be more The Body of Work vs. The Body at Work.
Johnson clearly is the star these days, putting himself right in the thick of the MVP conversation despite the Titans' 7-7 record, a stunning reversal in itself after an 0-6 start. He's a breathtaking runner with breathtaking speed, who, in a matter of carries, could snap San Diego's nine-game winning streak and keep the Titans' playoff hopes alive.
Tomlinson, meanwhile, is the reliable veteran who still has a nose for the end zone. His immeasurable heart, toughness and humility generate infinite respect in what could be his last NFL season, but this is no longer his team. Quarterback Philip Rivers, another MVP candidate, is the general.
For Tomlinson, wins and a championship are paramount. Johnson, meanwhile, is caught up in the youthful giddiness that once ensnared Tomlinson. Discussion of victories are accompanied by him talking about his goal to rush for 150 yards a game and how his 117 rushing yards against the Rams was a bad day at the park.
"Last year, if I would have had those games I would have been happy," Johnson said. "When we went on that five-game winning streak and saw how many yards I was able to get (800 rushing, 168 receiving), I kind of spoiled myself. Basically, that's why I expect. I raised the bar."
Like Johnson, it didn't take long for Tomlinson to be referred to by his initials, L.T., or to make us marvel at his ability to make defenders miss, use his small frame to shake and punish, and get into the end zone. The similarities don't end there.
As a rookie, Tomlinson rushed for 1,236; Johnson 1,228. It took Tomlinson six seasons to threaten the 2,000-yard milestone, while Johnson is on the cusp in his second year. But Tomlinson strung together nine seasons of at least 1,110 yards rushing, a standard of durability and production that is equally, if not as impressive, as reaching the coveted 2K -- something just five other players have done.
The difference between Tomlinson and Johnson, even in L.T.'s prime, is as simple as one word: speed.
Titans' tight end Alge Crumpler, who spent most of his career playing with Michael Vick in Atlanta, said Vick is still the most electrifying player he's seen, but Johnson is the fastest. And, to go back to an old-school analogy, he makes the smooth taste fool folks.
He doesn't throw his head back like the powerful Peterson, bounce or shift like wide receiver DeSean Jackson or gallop like Steven Jackson, the NFL's second-leading rusher (1,353). He glides, regardless of the direction. That makes him not look at fast as he really is, according to Crumpler.
"He's special," Crumpler said. "I haven't seen anybody get in the open field and do what he does. When he has the ball in his hands, nobody can seem to get him."
Tennessee coach Jeff Fisher said the inability to replicate Johnson's speed is uncanny for other teams and often leaves him in wonderment watching players who think they're fast assume they have the right pursuit angles for getting to Johnson. More often than not, first-timers get left behind. Second- and third-timers, too.
"His speed is something that, if you're not familiar with him, is very problematic," Fisher said. "It's different. He takes advantage of that. He can step sideways and be full speed in two steps. That's unusual, a rare gift."
While Johnson's speed is his calling card, he's also shown Tomlinson-like toughness, and more importantly patience, between the tackles. One of the hardest things for speed burners is waiting for a play to develop. Many, some who never get it right, blow to the line of scrimmage early and butt into a scrum, where their speed is negated and pursuing defenders can make plays.
Not Johnson. He waits for his linemen to position themselves to muscle open a crease and then he's gone. He's as complete of a back as there is in the NFL and teams can't figure out how to stop him, on the ground or in the passing game. He's equally as dangerous in the screen game as he is on a toss sweep.
He has nine straight games of 100-plus yards and is the one back in the NFL, according to center Kevin Mawae, who turns three-yard runs into 30 yarders, and 30-yard runs into 60-yard touchdowns.
Even if the Titans' incredible turnaround gets spoiled by the Chargers, or by the Seahawks in the finale, players are trying to get Johnson beyond 2,000 yards. They don't think him getting the 376 yards he needs to surpass Dickerson's record is unattainable after what they've seen him do.
Of course, neither does he.
"I need huge games," Johnson said. "It's not easy. It's going to be a hard thing to do. I still think it's in reach."