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Johnson not sure critics are silenced

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Tennessee Titans rookie running back Chris Johnson is tired of playing second fiddle. Or, in some cases, even fifth fiddle.

That's obvious as you read between the lines of his quotes over the past two weeks. Last week, there was what he called the "bogus" voting that left him second to Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan in the balloting for Associated Press Rookie of the Year.

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Johnson feasted on the Lions during Thanksgiving.
(Leon Halip/US Presswire)

This week, Johnson is turning that chip on his shoulder into a slab of discontent. After years of being overshadowed by the likes of Ryan, sprinter Walter Dix and other running backs such as Darren McFadden, Johnson has a chance to be alone on the stage. To prove that he truly belongs.

Unless, of course, he gets upstaged by Baltimore rookie quarterback Joe Flacco on Saturday when the Titans play host to the Ravens in the second round of the NFL playoffs.

Among the story lines that intersect during the postseason, an intriguing one is measuring which young stars will have the greatest impact both now and in the future. Last week, Ryan came up short, his three turnovers contributing to the end of Atlanta's remarkable season.

Meanwhile, Flacco rode the strength of his defense to a victory over Miami. The Ravens had the third stingiest run defense during the regular season, holding opponents to 81.4 yards per game. Johnson, who has teamed with LenDale White to form the self-dubbed "Smash and Dash," helped the Titans finish No. 7 in rushing at 137.4 yards per game.

Earlier this season, Tennessee beat Baltimore 13-10, though the Titans were limited to 47 yards rushing on 22 carries. Johnson had 44 yards on 18 carries.

Now comes Johnson's chance to avenge that poor showing.

"This is going to show a lot of people how good I really am and that I'm just not a fluke," Johnson said Tuesday in an interview with the Tennessee media, "and I'm not something that happened in the regular season, and show that I'm a very good player."

Being a first-round pick wasn't enough to give Johnson some sense of security about his worth as a player. Gaining 1,228 yards rushing and scoring nine touchdowns this year weren't enough, either, even if he outgained the four running backs drafted ahead of him. Somewhere in the recesses of Johnson's mind, the jury is still out. In his mind, he remains the injured and overlooked player from Orlando who couldn't get a scholarship to a front-line school and ended up at East Carolina.

"He was what they call a two-star athlete," East Carolina coach Skip Holtz said, specifically referring to the one-to-five star rating system used by Rivals.com. "It's the three-, four- and five-star athletes that everybody wants and everybody pays attention to. But Chris got here and all he wanted to do was work.

"He told us all the time about how he wanted to be a running back. He was under 200 pounds and we didn't have a very good offensive line his first three years here, but that didn't stop him. He learned the hard way that sometimes you just have to put your head down and get four yards and sometimes you can try to jump outside and make a big play."

At 5-foot-11 and 200 pounds, he remains the undersized speedster who NFL scouts compared to Reggie Bush last April … and not in a complimentary way.

The critical comparison to Bush by some scouts implied that Johnson wouldn't be able to handle the rigors of running the ball out of the backfield. To many, Johnson was destined to become a glorified third-down back and pass catcher.

"I didn't see the plays you see now … I mean, he still is mostly an outside runner, but he'll hurt you between the tackles," said one scout who was exceptionally critical of Johnson before the NFL draft and until the season started.

Said Holtz: "When you're not 225 pounds for the NFL scouts, everybody is thinking about you as a third-down back."

The underestimation of Johnson goes back to him being a top athlete in football-rich Florida.

As a junior at Olympia High, he was one of the fastest athletes in the state, but he was blown away in the state finals. Not that there should be any shame in that. Dix, who won a pair of individual bronze medals at the Beijing Summer Games last year, finished first.

As a senior, Johnson was expected to be one of the top runners in the state. Instead, his season came to a halt when he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee.

Likewise, Johnson suffered a neck injury as a junior at East Carolina, breaking a vertebra in his neck that required surgery after the season.

"We're playing Central Florida and he gets hurt, comes to the sidelines and has the trainers look at him and then goes back in," Holtz said. "He plays the next three games to end the season and then the bowl game. When he finally lets them do an X-ray, they find he has a broken [neck]. He's that tough.

"His last year here, he's our top prospect for the NFL, but when we're getting ready for the bowl game, he's right there first in line for drills. There was no protecting himself, worried about his draft status or anything like that. He only knows one speed and that's full go."

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Johnson caught attention with his 4.24 at the NFL combine.
(Michael Conroy/AP Photo)

Still, after four years at East Carolina, Johnson remained in the shadows of other backs. Even when he ran a 4.24 40 at the combine in February, most of the news revolved around Arkansas running back Darren McFadden. In April, Johnson was the fifth running back selected with the No. 24 pick overall, taken after McFadden at No. 4 to Oakland, Jonathan Stewart (No. 13, Carolina), Felix Jones (No. 22, Dallas) and Rashard Mendenhall (No. 23, Pittsburgh).

"All I heard about was, 'Those guys have proven themselves at big programs. They done this and that and whatever,'" Johnson said earlier this season. "That's cool, the scouts can say what they want. We'll see where I am when it's all done."

It also wasn't lost on Johnson that Jones, who was McFadden's backup, went ahead of him.

"I was sitting there in the draft thinking, 'Wow, that's amazing,' " Johnson said.

That fueled Johnson to outgain every one of the four backs drafted in front of him. Moreover, his success proves that running back can be a fickle position to take. McFadden, Jones and Mendenhall all had their seasons interrupted by injuries. Jones and Mendenhall finished the season on injured reserve.

Johnson finished third among rookie backs with 1,228 yards rushing, just behind Matt Forte of Chicago (1,238 yards) and Steve Slaton of Houston (1,282 yards). Most impressive is that Johnson led all rookies with at least 100 carries with an average of 4.9 yards per carry.

When he finished second to Ryan in the rookie of the year balloting, Johnson criticized the process and implied that the outcome would be different if other players and coaches had done the voting. While that showed great confidence, it ignored the fact that what Ryan (or even Flacco, for that matter) did was rare for a quarterback.

By comparison, rushing for more than 1,000 yards as a rookie is somewhat mundane. Since 1970, there have been 45 rookies who have topped the 1,000-yard mark in rushing, including 16 who rushed for more than 1,200. While there are plenty of greats who topped 1,200 yards, such as Eric Dickerson and LaDainian Tomlinson, there are plenty of lesser-accomplished runners who also did it, such as Mike Anderson and Ottis Anderson.

In other words, Johnson has done something nice. But is it more than a fluke?

He'll have to prove it.

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