Chris Johnson has heard the skeptical chatter, and he dispels it as quickly as he hits the crease on a cutback run. In the wake of a sensational second season in which he became the sixth NFL runner to eclipse the 2,000-yard plateau, the Tennessee Titans' Autobahn-fast halfback scoffs at the notion that he'll settle into the spoils of stardom and lose some of his drive.
"I still have reasons to work hard," Johnson said last week. "Most people say, 'Are you hungry still?' I'm not hungry anymore – I'm greedy. I graduated from hungry to greedy, and all I want is more."
Johnson's greed can be quantified on numerous levels.
Absolutely, he wants to put up even gaudier numbers than in 2009, when he earned NFL Offensive Player of the Year honors – last month he told the Sporting News that his goal was to rush for 2,500 yards, which would obliterate Eric Dickerson's single-season record of 2,105 in 1984.
He also wants to get paid, a desire that compelled him to skip most of the Titans' offseason program. Drafted 24th overall out of East Carolina in 2008, Johnson's quest for a reworked rookie deal was complicated by the "30 percent rule," and his relatively low ($550,000) base salary for 2010. The Titans ultimately placated Johnson by accelerating a reported $1.25 million of escalators from 2012, the final year of his rookie deal, and adding another $235,000 in incentives.
With Johnson essentially tabling his contract demands until next offseason, he's now focused on a third area of greed: helping Tennessee achieve the type of success it realized in 2008 (when the Titans started 10-0 and earned the AFC's top playoff seed before falling to Baltimore) and fulfill the promise it displayed in the final 10 games of '09 (when Jeff Fisher's team rebounded from an 0-6 start to win eight of its last 10).
"I let that go," Johnson says of his push for a new deal. "I really can't pay much more attention to it right now. The only thing I can really do is just come in and try to win a Super Bowl for this team."
Some might dismiss such comments as hyperbole, just as they did last summer when Johnson, fresh off an impressive rookie campaign (1,228 rushing yards, 4.9 yards per carry), announced that he was abandoning the "Smash and Dash" nickname he shared with then teammate LenDale White(notes) in favor of the moniker "Every Coach's Dream."
At the time, Fisher rolled his eyes and suggested that the two runners go with "Dumb and Dumber." Now, with White two teams removed from the Titans (he's fighting to make the Denver Broncos' roster) and Johnson coming off a season in which he ran for 2,006 yards and 14 touchdowns, averaged 5.9 yards per carry and caught 50 passes for 503 yards and two TDs, Fisher might as well call his halfback "The Franchise."
"Certainly, if you're going to defend our offense, you've got to pay particular attention to C.J. and get as many guys on the line of scrimmage as you possibly can," Fisher says. "He understands that in order for somebody to defend the offense, they're going to have to start with him. And he sees that as a challenge."
Fisher and offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger view the hyper-focus on Johnson as an opportunity to make opponents pay. With Vince Young's(notes) reemergence as the Titans' starting quarterback following the team's disastrous start last season came matchup nightmares for defenders who were cognizant of the quarterback's unique running abilities. Heimerdinger developed a variety of option plays with bootleg fakes that forced defensive ends and linebackers on the backside to stay home with Young, allowing Johnson more running room. Conversely, defenders who were too preoccupied with stopping Johnson got burned when Young kept the ball and ran or rolled out and threw downfield.
"Pre-Chris Johnson, [Young's running ability] was a concern from a defensive standpoint," Fisher says. "Now you add Chris to the mix, and it makes Vince that much more dangerous. And at this point we have the best group of receivers we've had in a long time, so we feel confident that we can then make plays in the passing game. If you load up guys in the box, we will be able to throw it down the field."
The prototype was displayed last November in the final 2:37 of the Titans' 20-17 victory over the Arizona Cardinals, as Young marched the Titans 99 yards on 18 plays and converted three fourth-down passes, including the 10-yard scoring pass to wideout Kenny Britt(notes) as time expired.
"C.J. didn't have a touch on that drive," Fisher says, "because they were so concerned with him."
Recalls Johnson: "It was like I stayed on the sideline, but I just had the closest seat in the house. I watched Vince make the throws and the receivers make the catches. It was amazing."
Not that Johnson enjoys being a decoy on a routine basis. His outrageous displays of individual brilliance last season – including seven touchdowns of 50 or more yards (five rushing, two receiving), the most by an NFL running back in 46 years – reflected a rare versatility that makes defending him a confounding proposition.
"Teams are very edge-conscious with C.J.," Fisher says. "They want to keep him inside. But he's a really good inside runner, and when he hits that crease …"
Well, that's when his unmatched speed (4.24 seconds in the 40-yard dash) takes over. Though Johnson's de facto status as the Fastest Man in Pads is there for the world to see, that doesn't stop everyone from fellow NFL players to randoms at the club from challenging him to various races, none of which ever seem to materialize.
"I get that all the time," Johnson says. "Everyone says they want to race, but they never show up."
An even more common conversation, of course, concerns his fantasy season for the ages. Says Johnson: "So many people, so many I've lost track, tell me, 'You won me a fantasy title. I owe you.' It's crazy." (Full disclosure: I did make a point of mentioning to Johnson that he made me look pretty psychic – and made a certain women's basketball coach pretty excited – in 2009.)
Johnson first understood the power of fantasy football during his rookie season when, while attending a Lil' Wayne concert in Nashville, he was introduced to the rapper backstage, "and he told me he'd been following me since college, and I was on his fantasy team.' "
Now Johnson counts Lil' Wayne and comedian Chris Tucker among a growing list of celebrity friends. Now that he's a fixture in the VIP room, Johnson is driven to take his fame to an even higher level in the years to come.
"I want to be in the same sentence as LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan, guys like that," Johnson says. "In order to do that you've got to put up numbers year after year, and break records, and do the kinds of things they do on the court. You've basically got to be able to do what you want out there on the field."
And, yes, you've got to be greedy.
- Jeff Fisher