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In hindsight, the whole "cars for yards" campaign might have been a little ambitious. Then again, ambition has never been one of Chris Johnson's weaknesses.
And that's probably a good thing, considering the five names the Tennessee Titans running back is chasing: Eric Dickerson, O.J. Simpson, Barry Sanders, Terrell Davis and Jamal Lewis(notes). Those are the only five players to break the 2,000-yard rushing barrier in the NFL. If Johnson, who leads the league with 1,396 rushing yards, continues on his current pace of 126.9 yards per game, he'll break the 2,000 yard mark in Week 17. Oh, and he'll also owe all of his offensive linemen a new car.
That's the pledge Johnson made last month, when he promised a nondescript set of wheels for each of his linemen if he can burst his way into rarified air. But while some of his linemen are likely thinking big – Mercedes, BMW, Lexus, perhaps even Bentley territory – Johnson's gift-giving will likely have a cap.
"Probably some Hondas or something like that," a smiling Johnson told reporters last month.
At the time it was a snappy joke – Johnson had only 824 rushing yards, and the CJ2K platform was more of a far-fetched dream than anything. Sort of like guaranteeing an 0-6 team could rattle off 10 straight wins and make the postseason. As we all know, Johnson made that declaration, too. Four wins later, his soothsaying abilities look only more impressive, as the Titans have rallied to 5-6, and Johnson has averaged 143 yards per game during the last month. That has actually strengthened his shot at both 2,000 yards and uncharted territory. Now it looks like he could get within distance of Eric Dickerson's all-time rushing mark of 2,105 yards and Marshall Faulk's(notes) record for yards from scrimmage (2,429).
With that in mind, here is a quick handicap of Johnson's final five games.
• Week 13 at Indianapolis Colts: Arguably the toughest game left on the schedule. Not because the Colts have an extremely staunch run defense (they are ranked 15th in the NFL) but because Indianapolis can score points and force Tennessee into more of a passing game. That's what happened the first time around, when Johnson was held to just 34 yards on nine carries. This game will have a huge impact on the push for 2,000.
• Week 14 vs. St. Louis Rams: If Indianapolis is the toughest remaining game, this is the softest, with the Rams allowing a ghastly 148.5 rushing yards per game. St. Louis has been gouged by multiple backs this season. Johnson has the ability to put up another 200-yard game in this one, and it could get him right back on track if he struggles against the Colts.
• Week 15 vs. Miami Dolphins: The Dolphins have the 12th-ranked run defense, but they also lost run-clogging nose tackle Jason Ferguson(notes) for the season, and that will have a big impact on their ability to defend the run down the stretch. They scheme well, but Johnson should have a shot at a solid game.
• Week 16 vs. San Diego Chargers: The loss of nose tackle Jamal Williams(notes) really hurt the consistency of the unit. The Chargers still have the ability to slow the run, but their ranking (21st in the NFL) is fairly indicative of the situation. Not a great run-stopping team. Another solid game for Johnson at home.
• Week 17 at Seattle Seahawks: It's the league's 18th-ranked run defense, but it's also on the road in what could be a frigid January game. Not the best conditions, but also facing a very inconsistent defensive unit and a team that will likely be very deflated by another losing season and continued talks about a new coaching or front-office regime. More difficult than it looks, but not exactly like facing the Minnesota Vikings, either. Certainly a solid game to break records.
All in all, the slate stacks up fairly well for Johnson. Maybe the only thing standing in his way is his own success. He'll see more seven- and eight-man boxes than any other time in the season, as teams stack up against the run and force quarterback Vince Young(notes) to continue to win games with the pass. Much like what he saw against the Arizona Cardinals last week, when Johnson was actually used as a decoy on Tennessee's game-winning drive. Record-breaking is always more difficult at the end of the run than the beginning. And it will be no different for Johnson.
Here are some of this week's other inconvenient truths …
Johnson is opening minds for Spiller
Speaking of Chris Johnson, Clemson running back C.J. Spiller might want to include him on his Christmas card list. Johnson's rise in the NFL is likely going to open a lot of minds about Spiller, who has a very similar body type and many of the same perceived strengths and weaknesses going into the 2010 NFL draft.
Less than two years removed from the 2008 draft, many have forgotten Johnson was branded as fast but lacking power, and wasn't expected to be a home-run hitter between the tackles. Johnson, selected 24th overall by the Titans, was also mediocre in pass protection, and had an inconsistent history as a primary ballcarrier. Many scouts panned Johnson's size and suggested he would have durability issues on the next level. Those complaints will sound familiar to Spiller (5-foot-11, 195 pounds), whose measurements and skill set match up very closely with Johnson's. However, one NFC personnel man who has seen Spiller in person said he thinks the Clemson running back will be more highly coveted, at least partially because of the success of the Titans running back.
"[Chris Johnson] has just awesome speed in pads, and Spiller has that," he said. "He doesn't lose anything on the field. The [evaluations] are so much alike. I think with Johnson, some teams thought he would be more of a kick returner/third-down option for a while, and you'd see if he could have the ability to be more. Spiller might still get some of that, but I bet more people are willing to give him that chance [to be a No. 1 running back] because of what Chris Johnson is doing. … He'll get out of that pigeonhole a little. Some people who never really considered a 198-, 200-pound back – he'll get some more attention from them. The big question is, are there those special traits there. Can he make a cut in the backfield, and bam, go 80 yards on this level?"
The executive said he thinks Spiller, who has 1,352 offensive yards with 14 touchdowns this season, will run a similar 40-yard dash to that of Johnson – clocked at one of the rare sub-4.3 second times. If he shows as expected in the dash and agility drills, the executive said, Spiller could go in the top half of the first round.
NFL players are being hypocrites over medical issues
There has always been an underlying feeling of distrust between NFL players and the medical staffs employed by teams – one that has been fostered by the rare proven instances where coaching staffs have hidden injuries, forced players back onto the field prematurely, or blatantly lied about medical information. At one point or another, many players are prone to second-guessing medical staffs, or feeling pressured to keep themselves on the football field at all costs.
So it's fairly hypocritical to hear players admitting about lying to teams about their own injury issues. From the Pittsburgh Steelers' Hines Ward(notes) to the Arizona Cardinals' Sean Morey(notes), to the 25 percent of NFL players who admitted lying to teams about concussions in an Associated Press survey, we're getting a fairly clear window into how deceptive players can be with injury issues.
I can remember talking to an AFC trainer in 2005 for a story about drug testing, and we eventually wandered into issues of player health. He said one of the most frustrating parts of his job was dealing with the tension created by players in the event of injuries. He suggested that agents had become an increasing part in the problem, counseling some players to share less information with team doctors in favor of relying more on independent specialists. In some cases, he said it fostered an almost adversarial relationship between injured players and trainers and team physicians – to the point where he recalled arguments breaking out during examinations.
Now add in the latest admissions of players who have lied to stay on the field, and it suggests a very muddled medical situation. The bottom line: Players can't expect teams and medical staffs to protect them if they aren't giving the honest information. And they certainly can't feel distrust toward a team in one moment when they turn around and engage in deception the next.
Fisher's future in Tennessee is cloudy
ESPN's Chris Mortensen floated a very interesting note this week: Titans owner Bud Adams could have potentially breached coach Jeff Fisher's contract by forcing Young back into the starting lineup. If Adams did indeed breach Fisher's deal, it could potentially be used as a tool to help Fisher escape his contract, if he felt compelled to do so.
There are a few things that are interesting about that revelation. First, it's interesting that such information would come to light right now, in the midst of a five-game winning streak for the Titans. Make no mistake, contract information is strategically leaked for a specific purpose. Secondly, it's another eyebrow raiser about Fisher, on top of the Peyton Manning(notes) jersey fiasco earlier this season, which also happened to take place after Adams made it known he wanted Young to start again.
Ultimately, you have to wonder if Fisher wants to stay in Tennessee. Maybe Fisher wants a change or a new contract. Maybe he's finally chafing under Adams. Or maybe he's not entirely on the same wavelength as Young. It's a well-known fact that Young was Adams' choice, and that some members of the coaching staff favored Matt Leinart(notes), taken seven picks later at No. 10 by the Cardinals, in that draft. And clearly Young has done some things that have rubbed Fisher the wrong way in the past.
Maybe I'm just being a conspiracy theorist, but Fisher is a very smart, calculated person. He knows what he's doing. That's why the incident with the Manning jersey surprised me, not to mention the fact that he was hardly contrite afterward, even when it clearly irked some of his players. Now this latest tidbit about a potential contact breach surfaces, and it seems more than mere coincidence. Regardless of how Tennessee finishes the season, something deeper appears to be in the works, and I think we'll find out what it is as the postseason approaches.
- Chris Johnson