By Jason Wilde
When it comes to interviews, Chris Johnson is soft-spoken and shy. Ask any of the reporters who cover the Tennessee Titans and their star running back, and they’ll tell you that unless their microphones and digital recorders are up close to Johnson’s famously gold-plated teeth, they won’t be able to capture much of what he has to say.
But when they are successful, when they put on their noise-canceling headphones, push play and can actually hear Johnson’s unmistakable voice, what they get is this: A supremely confident, shoot-for-the-moon player who isn’t afraid to ratchet up expectations for the 2010 season after his astonishing 2009.
“I feel like I’m never satisfied,” Johnson said during training camp. “I’m coming back in with the same mindset: That I haven’t done anything yet.”
Oh, but he has done so much – and so quickly, too. Entering just his third NFL season, Johnson is coming off one of the greatest years a running back has had in league history.
The 5-foot-11, 200-pound Johnson rushed for 2,006 yards – on a league-high 358 carries – last season, becoming only the sixth player in NFL history to surpass the elusive 2,000-yard mark. But he came up 99 yards short of Eric Dickerson’s single-season rushing record of 2,105 yards, set in 1984.
Johnson also caught a team-leading 50 passes for another 503 yards – giving him 2,509 total yards, breaking Marshall Faulk’s 1999 NFL record for single-season yards from scrimmage – and two more TDs. Only Dickerson and Edgerrin James had more yards from scrimmage through their first two seasons than Johnson (3,997), who also became the first NFL player to run for three touchdowns of 85 yards or longer in a single season.
Johnson also registered 12 straight 100-yard games – a streak he carried into the 2010 season with a chance of breaking Barry Sanders’ NFL record of 14. He opened the season with a 142-yard, two-touchdown effort in the Titans’ 38-13 victory over the Oakland Raiders on Sept. 12.
But what’s remarkable about Johnson and his ultra-high expectations is that even a performance like that doesn’t measure up to his stated goal for this season. While he’d have to average roughly 132 yards per game to break Dickerson’s record, that’s not enough for him.
“I’m shooting for 2,500,” said Johnson, who would need to average 157 yards per game over the season’s final 15 games to accomplish his ambitious goal. “But I’ll be happy with anything over the record. I was close to doing it last year, so that gives me motivation to do it this year.
“It gives me something to look forward to. People might be like, ‘Oh, you (ran) for 2,000 yards, so he’s content or whatever.’ I haven’t broken the record, so I still have something on my shoulder and something to work hard for.”
Yes, Johnson would gladly settle for “only” breaking Dickerson’s mark, which has stood for 26 years. And if his 2,500-yard plan sounds unrealistic, Titans coach Jeff Fisher points out that Johnson’s goal for last season sounded that way, too.
“I remind you last year at this time he wanted to be MVP and rush for 2,000 yards,” Fisher said.
“He changes defenses. He can get on the edge and outrun people. I think we will all agree that when he gets in the secondary … no one’s going to catch him. It’s a touchdown.”
Johnson came up short in his MVP bid, as Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning won his unprecedented fourth – leaving Johnson with a chip on his shoulder he intends to carry with him throughout the season. If he has his way, he’ll force the 50 voters on the Associated Press panel – the same ones who gave him 38 ½ votes to win the NFL Offensive Player of the Year award last year – to put his name on their MVP ballots.
“I was disappointed I didn’t get MVP. I won’t lie. I don’t think anyone had a season like I did,” said Johnson, who didn’t get a single MVP vote after the Titans went 8-8 and failed to make the playoffs. “I feel like you can put my season up against all those people who got votes for MVP, and my season would be better.”
But if he runs for 2,000 yards again, the voters would “have no choice,” Johnson said. “A player’s never done it back-to-back. I don’t think they’d have a choice.”
To do that, Johnson would have to overcome not only opposing defenses determined to stop him – “They were trying to stop me last year and it still didn’t work,” he said – but also history, which has not been kind to the previous five 2,000-yard backs (Buffalo’s O.J. Simpson in 1973, the Los Angeles Rams’ Dickerson in 1984, Detroit’s Barry Sanders in 1997, Denver’s Terrell Davis in 1998 and Baltimore’s Jamal Lewis in 2003) in the season that followed.
Sanders came closest in 1998, rushing for 1,491 yards after rushing for 2,053 in ‘97. Simpson followed up his 2,003-yard season with only 1,125 yards in 1974. Dickerson played two fewer games in 1985 and gained only 1,234 yards. Davis’ season ended in 1999 after four games and 211 yards, well short of his 2,008 yards in ‘98. And Lewis managed only 1,006 yards in 12 games in 2004 after running for 2,066 yards the year before.
“That puts something on my shoulders I can look forward to,” Johnson said. “I am just going to go out there and play like I did last season. I just have to run the same way – really hard – and continue trying to be the best back (in the league).
Becoming the first player to have two 2,000-yard seasons – much less back-to-back – isn’t Johnson’s only motivation. He also wants a new contract, having far outperformed his rookie deal.
Given the uncertainty surrounding the league’s negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement with the NFL Players Association – and the likelihood of a work stoppage in 2011 – Johnson and agent Joel Segal began lobbying the Titans for a new contract shortly after last season.
While Johnson skipped all of the team’s voluntary offseason conditioning program and organized team activity practices in hopes of landing a new deal that included $30 million in guaranteed money, he instead had to settle for the Titans moving money he’d earned in incentives for the 2012 season into his 2010 salary.
It amounted to a $1.5 million raise from the $550,000 base salary he was slated to make in 2010, the third year of his original five-year, $12 million contract that included $7 million in guaranteed money.
“(What happened this offseason) of course it gives me more to prove. Every time I step on the field I want to prove something,” Johnson said. “I wouldn’t say (there are) no hard feelings. I wouldn’t say (I’m) satisfied, but what can I do? I am just here to play football.
“It’s a business. It’s about money at the end of the day.”
Johnson shouldn’t have much trouble gaining outside income from endorsements. He’s said before that he wants to be as well-known as Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan, and during the offseason he filmed commercials for Nike and Powerade and found himself on the cover of just about every magazine – including this one – out there.
“That’s what every guy wants to be who plays any sport: They want to be the next Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant or whoever you want to name,” Johnson said.
“All the commercials for the shoes, all the magazine covers, things like that … I actually got a call from a marketing guy a couple days ago and he told me the number was up to 17 magazine covers. That just shows you right there.”
What it also shows is just how far Johnson has come. Lightly recruited coming out of high school, he led the nation in yards from scrimmage in his final season at East Carolina, then posted a 4.24-second 40-yard dash time at the NFL Scouting Combine (thought to be the fastest electronically measured time in the history of the Combine).
Nonetheless, he still lasted until the 24th overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft, with four running backs – Oakland’s Darren McFadden (fourth), Carolina’s Jonathan Stewart (13th), Dallas’ Felix Jones (22nd) and Pittsburgh’s Rashard Mendenhall (23rd) – going before him.
Now, it’s Johnson leading the pack, both on the field and within the collectibles industry.
“I feel like if I have individual goals and we’re winning as a team, and I’m doing what I want to do, I’m helping the team win,” Johnson said. “I’m just trying to keep being consistent, keep doing the right thing and continue to keep having good games and hopefully get closer to that record.” SCM
Jason Wilde covers the Green Bay Packers for ESPNMilwaukee.com and ESPNMadison.com. He has covered the team since 1996.