Forgetting the Titan
Published: Friday, August 31, 2012
Updated: Friday, August 31, 2012 00:08
O.J. Simpson, Eric Dickerson, Barry Sanders, Terrell Davis and Jamal Lewis.
That is the elite company Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson joined when he eclipsed the 2,000-yard single-season rushing mark in a stellar 2009 campaign. The list includes three Hall of Famers — Simpson, Dickerson and Sanders — and two record-setting Super Bowl winners — Davis and Lewis.
In a league of increasingly pass-heavy offenses and aerial duels between Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers, Chris Johnson remains one of few running backs with true game-changing ability. His raw speed and acute field vision make him a threat to score any time he has the ball.
Those first five members of the 2,000-yard club accomplished the feat in a league that was far different than the one where Johnson made his mark. In the time between Simpson’s 1973 mark and Lewis’s 2003 finish, NFL offenses functioned under a “run first, establish the pass later” mentality.
Football’s 21st-century evolution has ushered in an era of five-receiver sets, dual tight ends and an utter disregard for the fullback position. That’s why Johnson’s 2009 season restored energy and excitement to a position many had dismissed as obsolete.
Though he would ultimately be drafted 24th overall by the Titans in 2008, Johnson didn’t open eyes until the later stages of his collegiate career. Out of high school, he was recruited by Eastern Kentucky and UConn before settling on East Carolina — no perennial powerhouses there. Scouts saw him as underweight, one dimensional and inconsistent.
Johnson generated big buzz, though, with back-to-back record-breaking performances. He followed up a Football Bowl Subdivision record of 408 all-purpose yards in the 2007 Hawaii Bowl with an NFL Scouting Combine that left fellow suitors, scouts and doubters in the dust.
A 4.24-second 40-yard dash time erased all concerns about Johnson’s ability to compete at the next level. He made the Pro Bowl as a rookie and entered his sophomore season as the Titans’ lone feature back.
And in 2009, Johnson was like something out of a video game. He topped the century mark in 12 games, including the final 11, and began drawing the attention of the sporting world one game at a time. On a mediocre team with a mediocre supporting cast and mediocre playoff aspirations, Chris Johnson was unstoppable.
He turned broken plays into 17-yard gains and three-yard “safety valves” into theatrical end zone celebrations. He dictated every game from the second he stepped onto the field, requiring the undivided attention of all 11 defenders at any given time. He always demanded the ball, and he never failed to disappoint. He forced defensive coordinators to machinate never-before-seen alignments. He made a lucky few fantasy football zealots very, very rich.
The sheer dominance Johnson exhibited week in and week out made us reconsider the notion of running back decline, if only for a second or two.
Johnson’s leap to stardom surpassed even that of Justin Bieber. He zoomed past Adrian Peterson, (yes, Adrian Peterson!) as the league’s premier rusher. Analysts entertained the possibility of the running back position’s return to prominence. Yes, he had rushed for over 2,000 yards. Yes, he had broken broke Marshall Faulk’s NFL record of most yards from scrimmage.
But what experts and football enthusiasts failed to consider was Johnson’s unorthodox style of play.
Many of his long runs were clever inventions — jukes and jabs — that shook him free of approaching tacklers. A strong majority of his 2,000 yards were direct results of his athleticism and agility, not blocking schemes and technically “smart” running. Johnson’s production predictability dipped in the following two seasons, and, though he reached a still-commendable 1,000 yards in each, he only managed to total twelve 100-yard games between the two seasons.
The honeymoon period was over, and running backs returned to their afterthought status. As fun as it was for those 16 games in 2009, it was unrealistic and irrational to fall in love with what had taken place.
What will 2012 bring for the face of the Tennessee Titans franchise?
A quick look at history says not much. O.J Simpson and Eric Dickerson enjoyed long, prosperous careers. Barry Sanders left the game in his prime, and Terrell Davis’s body began breaking down at an early age.
Perhaps Jamal Lewis serves as the easiest parallel in forecasting Chris Johnson’s future. Lewis got 2,000 yards in 2003 and never again approached that number, wilting away in Cleveland in his final years. Johnson’s “bell curve” of year-to-year stats is similar to Lewis’: one superb season superseded by less-than-spectacular performances.
But ultimately, this is a question that can only be answered one way. Will the real Chris Johnson please stand up?
Matt Bell is a freshman in the McDonough School of Business. FRESH OUT OF PHILLY appears every Friday.