Titans vs. Texans
It only takes a split-second for Chris Johnson to jar your memory, to transport you through time and back to the 2009 season when he was the most dynamic running back in the NFL.
Johnson rekindled past glory during the opening week of the 2013 preseason when he broke free from a pack of Tennessee Titans teammates and darted left to the open field, where he twisted Washington Redskins rookie safety Bacarri Rambo into a pretzel before sprinting 58 yards for a touchdown.
In that instant Johnson recaptured the flair that earned him the "CJ2K" nickname and validated his offseason boasts that he would indeed become the first player in league history to rush for 2,000 yards in a single season twice. In that moment, Johnson tantalized.
That Johnson set the bar ridiculously high as a second-year player doesn't diminish his accomplishments in the interim.
But for all his wondrous displays of breathtaking speed and impossible elusiveness, one fact remains: Chris Johnson hasn't come close to matching the production from his second season in the NFL when he became the sixth player in league history to eclipse 2,000 rushing yards while also amassing a league record 2,509 yards from scrimmage.
Johnson talks a good game, but his sporadic production over the past three seasons offers a case study proving that even the most electrifying talents are incapable of singular greatness. As extraordinary as he is, Johnson requires aid.
With the Titans (1-0) preparing to face the Houston Texans (1-0) on Sunday at Reliant Stadium, Johnson stands to cement his legacy in the annals of a franchise with deep roots in Houston.
Johnson needs 42 yards to become the third player in franchise history to reach 7,000 career rushing yards, trailing Eddie George (10,009) and Earl Campbell (8,574). He stands two touchdowns shy of becoming the fourth player in franchise history with 50 touchdowns, with George (74), Campbell (73) and Charlie Hennigan (51) ahead on that list. And if Johnson musters 72 combined net yards against the Texans he will surpass Ernest Givens (8,704) for fourth place on the franchise's all-time list.
While George, Campbell, Hennigan and Givens provide lofty company, Johnson has had his eyes squarely focused on 2,000 yards since he led the NFL with 2,006 rushing yards four seasons ago. Johnson also paced the league in rushing attempts (358) and had the longest run from scrimmage in 2009 (91 yards) while ranking third averaging 5.6 yards per carry.
His durability — Johnson has yet to miss a game due to injury — is as much of a hallmark as his blazing speed. But myriad obstacles have prevented Johnson from approaching the statistics he posted during his historic campaign, and despite bold proclamations of another 2,000-yard quest, the Titans appear inclined to focus on more modest goals relative to Johnson and their revamped rushing attack.
"If we just keep getting better at what we're trying to do week in and week out, he'll have his chances to make big plays," Titans coach Mike Munchak said. "We know what he's capable of doing; he's done it in preseason. Last year he had three or four big runs. Those will come. I'm more interested in what we saw the other day of just getting a lot of three- or four-yard runs and really not having any negative runs. That was more of our concern going forward.
"The other things will happen when they happen. You just don't know when that's going to be in a particular game. But knowing that you have that type of threat in the backfield, that if it all goes right he can take it the distance at any time, that's a positive. It's more for us that it's second-and-6 and second-and-7 than second-and-12."
NFL Week One Lessons
Johnson rushed for 70 yards on 25 carries in the Titans' 16-9 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers last Sunday. Three of those carries went for negative yards, but his minus five total yards on those carries were negligible. In his first season coaching the Titans, Munchak witnessed Johnson produce 30 negative-yardage carries totaling minus 73 yards.
He remains as audacious as ever, as brazenly confident in his ability to change a game with one burst through the line and into the open expanse of the secondary.
Last season Johnson had 38 such carries for minus 125 yards. Five of those negative-yardage carries came against the Texans and, incidentally but not surprisingly, All-Pro defensive end J.J. Watt was involved in all five.
Juxtapose his jaw-dropping run in the preseason opener against his 2.8 yards per carry last Sunday and the analogy of Johnson as a home run hitter remains valid. His Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement value with Football Outsiders is wildly inconsistent season to season, with Johnson improving from seventh among running backs as a rookie to first overall in that category during his breakout sophomore season. He declined sharply to 30th in 2010 and 49th two years ago before experiencing an uptick to 33rd among qualified running backs last season.
Some of that variance should be attributed to the Titans' offensive line, which excelled in pass blocking last season (most notably tackles Michael Roos and David Stewart) yet struggled creating the sizeable holes Johnson requires to generate the acceleration needed to terrorize linebackers and safeties. Pro Football Focus ranked the Titans' offensive line 14th in the league last season, a number middling enough that the franchise revamped the interior of that line by signing free agents Rob Turner and Andy Levitre and drafting guard Chance Warmack 10th overall.
The changes didn't stop there. Munchak installed Dowell Loggains as his new offensive coordinator, with Johnson reportedly gleeful over Loggains' run-oriented scheme. Shonn Greene and Jackie Battle, offseason additions by way of the New York Jets and San Diego Chargers, respectively, should not only help Johnson shoulder an ambitious rushing load, their added depth should enable the Titans to remove some of the responsibility asphyxiating third-year quarterback Jake Locker, who attempted only 20 passes in the victory over the Steelers.
The Titans are committed to reclaiming their identity as a run-first offense after ranking 21st last season with 105.4 rushing yards per game. Staff and personnel alterations make that much clear.
"That's the goal this year is to be more productive than we've been the last couple years," Munchak said. "The run game is always going to be a focus just like it is there in Houston. As the running game goes, so does the offense and the football team."
In a micro view, Johnson is central to a prolific ground game and, from a macro perspective, the Titans' overall self-esteem. That Johnson set the bar ridiculously high as a second-year player doesn't diminish his accomplishments in the interim, most notably his ranking fifth in league history with 6,888 rushing yards over his first five seasons and second only to Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson (7,601 yards) since Johnson entered the league in 2008. With six touchdowns runs of 80-plus yards, Johnson has twice as many as anyone in NFL annals.
But when the talent is this explosive, the personality this brash, great isn't quite good enough.
Johnson speaks of legacies and pushing boundaries never before reached, and the fact that contemporaries have gained a foothold on the list recognizing the best running back not surnamed Peterson hasn't influenced Johnson in the least. He remains as audacious as ever, as brazenly confident in his ability to change a game with one burst through the line and into the open expanse of the secondary.
We were all privy to his exceptionality against the Redskins during the preseason. Trusting that Johnson, at 27, has enough left to do what has never been done isn't a belief rife with folly.