In 2009, Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson set the league record for yards from scrimmage with 2,509, making him the only player in NFL history to amass over 2,500 non-return yards in a single regular season, and the sixth to run for over 2,000 yards alone. It was an amazing series of performances, but for the soft-spoken Johnson, the challenge goes to another level in 2010. He wants to be the first back to follow one 2,000 rushing season with another. Johnson has additional momentum in that he's using his personal goals to help local schools.
[Photos: See running back Chris Johnson in action]
From the press release:
The star ball-carrier has teamed with POWERADE® to create the "Running Back to Schools" program, an initiative that benefits Metropolitan Nashville Public High Schools. The Davidson County schools, which have athletic programs in need of equipment, uniforms, facility upgrades, and supplies, will receive a $10 donation from POWERADE for every rushing yard Johnson registers this season. The money will be earmarked for improving sports conditions and opportunities across the 17 zoned and magnet high schools with athletic programs in the district.
POWERADE is encouraging football fans to follow Johnson's charitable endeavor all season long via his Twitter feed, and will make a bonus contribution of $1 for each of the first 5,000 re-tweets by his followers who include #powerade.
"I loved my high school sports experience in Orlando, and it taught me skills such as teamwork, discipline and dedication. POWERADE and I want to do our part to make sure that youngsters here in Nashville have an opportunity for their own positive high school sports experience, and that requires proper funding," said Johnson. "My goal is to raise more than $20,000...if you catch my drift."
When I talked to Johnson last week, he had set even more lofty goals -- he sees the possibility of 2,500 yards on the ground alone. That would shatter Eric Dickerson's 1984 mark of 2,105, but if anyone can do it, Johnson would be a good bet. Not only do most of his yards come outside the tackles (where constant contact is less of an issue), but he's the best back in the league at breaking long runs. In addition, the way that he and quarterback Vince Young(notes) work in tandem with Tennessee's option attack sets defenses on their heels on a per-play basis.
"Well, I got 2,000 yards rushing last year, and 2,500 yards overall, so I just said, why not get it all at once? I just think that if I do everything the same, I could do as well as last year," Johnson told me.
Two plays in the Titans' opening win over the Oakland Raiders stood out and showed me just how much opposing defenses are forced to focus on Johnson and still can't stop him. First, there was Young's 56-yard touchdown pass to Nate Washington(notes) in the first quarter; Washington saw single coverage because half the Raiders defense went the wrong way on the stretch play action to Johnson.
"I think that's the good thing about our offense -- [opposing defenses] can't put eight men in the box and focus on the running back," he told me. "If you do that, someone else will be open. They can't just keep going after me, because our quarterback and our receivers are so good, and they can make plays over the top. On that play, they had eight in the box, and the cornerback and safety both bit."
Titans offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger does a great job of dialing up plays that feature option looks and still work in the power-based NFL. Johnson's 76-yard touchdown run in the second quarter was a perfect example. After the snap, Young took a few steps to his right as if he was going to run, then handed off to Johnson, who blew past everyone the other way for the long score.
"That was pretty much a straight draw play in our two-minute offense," Johnson said. "Coach Heimerdinger called that play. We had great blocking up front for that one, and also great blocking by our receivers downfield."
The challenge for the Titans this season is to continue the momentum of their 8-2 finish, and avoid 2009's disastrous 0-6 start. For Johnson, the difference this year is that not only is Young in at quarterback; he's become a much better pocket passer. Now, all facets of the team's offense are on all the way.
"I do think we can run different plays with Vince than we could with Kerry Collins(notes), because Vince is more that option quarterback. So, all credit goes to Mike Heimerdinger for calling the right plays. And this year, he's extended it, and we can call more of the plays we called with Kerry Collins with Vince in there, because [Vince is] a better quarterback now."
A great player and a good cause - that's always a winning combination.
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