NASHVILLE, Tenn. – For one riveting hour, in a jam-packed stadium full of awestruck admirers, Chris Johnson and LenDale White(notes) lived out their grandest football fantasies. In a fiercely contested AFC divisional playoff game last January, the Tennessee Titans' running back tandem was taking it to Ray Lewis(notes) and the Baltimore Ravens, providing a one-two punch that looked poised for a knockout.
The tandem celebrates White's TD against Baltimore in the playoffs.
(Jim Brown/US Presswire)
Then, late in the first half, Smash and Dash experienced a spectacular crash: Johnson, the electrifying rookie who had 100 total yards and a touchdown, limped to the sideline for good with a sprained right ankle. White, the beefy back who led the AFC with 15 rushing TDs during the regular season, fumbled at the Ravens' 17-yard line in the final minute of the second quarter. The rattled Titans suffered a 13-10 defeat at LP Field that had a profound impact on each of its vanquished ball-carriers.
As Titans coach Jeff Fisher said earlier this week before a training camp practice, "It's still a very, very deep wound."
White, devastated by the defeat and the role his fumble played in it, shed more than 30 pounds over the offseason in an effort to reshape his career, attributing his weight loss to the elimination of tequila from his diet. Johnson, motivated by the breakout stardom he seemed to be achieving before his injury, shed his first-year shyness, announcing in June he had given himself the nickname "Every Coach's Dream."
In addition to a double dose of daily locker-room entertainment, the Titans believe they've gained an even bigger edge on opposing defenses than they had last season, when Tennessee boasted the AFC's third-ranked rushing attack. While free-agent signee Nate Washington(notes) gives quarterback Kerry Collins(notes) a downfield receiving threat and rookie tight end Jared Cook(notes) could present some intriguing matchup problems, there's no doubt that the Titans' offense revolves around the duo formerly known as Smash and Dash.
Whatever you call Johnson – Bengals wideout Chad Ochocinco(notes), one of the young runner's role models, recently dubbed him "Beep Beep," a reference to the Roadrunner cartoon – he's clearly the first option in Tennessee's attack. The former East Carolina speedster ran for 1,228 yards on 251 carries (4.9 average) in '08 and was the only rookie position player voted into the Pro Bowl.
Johnson, who'd run the 40-yard dash in a blazing 4.24 seconds at the NFL scouting combine, was derided by numerous experts as a "reach" after Tennessee chose him with the 24th overall pick. By season's end he had blossomed into a bona fide feature back, and before getting hurt against the Ravens he evoked images of a young LaDainian Tomlinson(notes).
"He was that good – we were seeing it happen," Titans fullback Ahmard Hall(notes) says of Johnson's playoff performance. "He's still got a lot to learn in terms of where to go and how to protect, but once he figures it out and the game starts slowing down for him, he's going to be one of the best that's ever played the game."
If that sounds like hyperbole, don't expect Johnson to provide a reality check.
"I'm trying to be The Man," he says excitedly. "If a player doesn't think that way, he's not being truthful. I don't think anybody wants to go down in history [only] as, 'I was a great team player.' I'm a team player and I want to get to the Super Bowl. But when all is said and done, I want to be in the Hall of Fame."
While Johnson focuses on raising his profile, White is showing off his new, relatively svelte figure. "When he showed up for training camp," says Collins, the team's 36-year-old quarterback, "I said, 'Who is that guy?' "
The former USC standout has been dogged by questions about his commitment and reliability since his infamous pro day performance before the '06 draft. The Titans finally took him in the second round and he became a starter in his second season, rushing for 1,110 yards.
Though he put up solid numbers (200 carries, 773 yards, 3.9 average and the 15 rushing TDs) while splitting carries with Johnson in '08, White received a sobering message during a sit-down with his head coach immediately after the season: Don't take this for granted. Your last carry in the NFL is staring you in the face.
"Coach Fisher is great – he wants to see you succeed, and he does everything he can to help you make that happen," White says. "He told me, 'Before you know it, it's over,' and talked about how it went down with Eddie [George, the franchise's all-time rushing leader]. You take heed and you listen, but he could have said whatever he wanted – it was up to me to buckle down and do it. When I fumbled against Baltimore and we lost that game, I had already made the decision."
White, who says he was as heavy as 265 pounds last season, reported to training camp at 228. Earlier this month, when reporters asked how he slimmed down, White spared them the tales of his two-a-day workouts in the hills of his Colorado hometown and instead credited his newfound willpower regarding Patron tequila.
There goes that potential endorsement deal.
"Not really," White says. "Once we win the Super Bowl, I'm right back on it, so tell 'em to send me a big bottle of Patron Platinum and we'll get it rolling."
Johnson, left, and White during camp practice in early August.
(Mark Humphrey/AP Photo)
Though logic suggests White might not be the hammer he was at his former weight, he insists he'll actually be a more formidable load this season. "If anything, there's a little more velocity coming downhill," he says. "[Defenders] have got to worry about that; not me. I'm the same runner. Did you see what I did on Sunday?"
That was a reference to White's impressive three-yard scoring blast in the first quarter of Tennessee's preseason opener, a 21-18 victory over the Buffalo Bills in the Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio. Though Johnson had previously announced a "divorce" from White – and thus the end of the Smash and Dash label – a conversation with a new inductee just before kickoff offered the prospect of a revival.
"Right when he was getting introduced, Rod Woodson told us, 'I want to see Smash and Dash this season,' " White says. "The man's a Hall of Famer; that's enough for me. I have new nicknames, too: 'Every Opposing Coach's Nightmare' and 'Save the Last Dance,' which means I'm saving that last dance for the Super Bowl. But we'll always be Smash and Dash, cause I am him and he is me."
Says Johnson: "Yeah, 'Him is Me and I am Him' – that's the upgrade from Smash and Dash." As for Woodson's request, Johnson adds, "Um, I don't know, we might still be split up. Cause you know how in some divorces, your mom or one of her people that's older wants you to get back together, but you still [doesn't] do it? We're a combo, but we each want to be our own person."
One thing the runners absolutely share is a painful memory of that Ravens game and a sense that the next time they get in such a situation, they'll find a way to experience more than a fleeting hour's worth of glory.
"Every time I think about that game, I get upset," Johnson says. "It let me know what kind of player I can be in this league, but it just left me feeling hungrier."
It left White a lot hungrier, too – and thirstier. For until the newly toned runner wins a Super Bowl ring, Jeff Fisher is his patron.
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