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Chris Johnson is Titans' bolt of lightning

The Tennessee running back is on pace to top the 2,000-yard mark in 2009. Is Eric Dickerson's single-season mark in peril?

December 04, 2009|By Sam Farmer | On The NFL

Being the fastest player in the NFL is a little like being the biggest guy in the bar. There's always someone who wants to tangle.

So Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson had to chuckle when he heard Boston Celtics guard Rajon Rondo wants to challenge him to a race.

"He must be stupid or something," said Johnson, adding he could beat Rondo in a game of one-on-one to boot.

Johnson, you see, measures his speed against the best of the best. He said he'd love to race Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt in a 40-yard dash, suggesting that would be prime pay-for-view fodder. More on that in a moment.

But the guy Johnson really dreams of outrunning is a 49-year-old man who hasn't played professional sports in 16 years. It's Hall of Fame running back Eric Dickerson, who holds the league record for most yards rushing in a season, 2,105, set with the Los Angeles Rams in 1984.

Johnson, who has 1,396 yards through 11 games and is on pace to become the sixth player to break the 2,000 mark, thinks he'll not only wind up in that esteemed group but will get the single-season record.

"Yes, I will, no question," he said. "Both."

Dickerson, it seems, isn't losing sleep over that promise.

"I don't know who this guy is -- what's his name, Chris Johnson?" Dickerson said earnestly. "Because I don't really watch football. . . . You come to my house and you won't find my TV on ESPN or a sports channel."

Still, if Johnson keeps running the way he has been, he will even be a familiar name in the Dickerson household. Because so far, his numbers are astounding.

For instance, until this season, no one in NFL history had ever recorded three touchdown runs of at least 85 yards in his career.

Johnson has scored on three such runs this season.

The second-year pro has strung six consecutive games of at least 125 yards rushing, averaging a staggering 154.7 yards over that span.

And this defies all logic: Johnson is averaging more yards per carry in the NFL this season (6.4) than in his best season at East Carolina (6.0).

"All you have to do is watch him once to realize he's faster than anybody on the field," said Phil Simms, analyst for "Inside the NFL" on Showtime. "He's the fastest guy in the NFL. He's light on his feet, it's hard to get a big hit on him, and he's so light a lot of times he gets hit and it just pushes him a little to the side and he keeps going."

The mere threat of his breaking free on any given play limits what defenses can do, Simms said, making life easier for quarterback Vince Young, the receivers, everyone on that side of the ball.

"The Titans don't have to sit there and say, 'We're going to see this, this and this on defense.' They know the list is very short because the other team's got to worry about tackling him," Simms said. "And not only on first and second down; if it's third and 10, they'll run it.

"Vince Young's not winning games running the football. He runs it six times for 22 yards, whatever. But you lose the game by letting Chris Johnson run 80 and 60 and 40. That's how you lose."

And people are losing to the Titans, a team that started the season by dropping six games in a row. In one of the league's most dramatic turnarounds in memory, Tennessee has won five straight and is now among the more dangerous teams.

Young plays a big part in that -- the Titans haven't lost since making him their starting quarterback -- and it's very helpful too that the defense is getting healthy. But the emergence of Johnson is a huge factor.

Like his team, Johnson started slowly. Yes, he rushed for 197 yards against Houston in Week 2, but he was held to fewer than 100 in four of his first five -- including a season-low 34 against Indianapolis, the Titans' opponent Sunday.

But in the past six games he has rushed for 128, 228, 135, 132, 151 and 154.

Likable but immodest, Johnson says that his running "has to make defensive coordinators not be able to sleep at night," and that he loves running between the tackles even though his unremarkable size -- 5 feet 11, 200 pounds -- is more typical of a third-down back.

"For me, it's just more of being a complete back, not just being able to run outside," he said. "You've got to be able to run inside too. That helps you prove everybody wrong, that you're nothing but a speed guy or a track guy."

As for speedsters, Johnson has his sights set on the best -- even though stopwatch-clutching track aficionados surely would say Bolt would win every time.

"I want to race him this off-season in the 40 or 50," said Johnson, who ran a 4.24 40 at the 2008 combine. "I wouldn't race him in the 100. But I think the 40 or 50 would be a real good race; I think I'd beat him."

Hey, let him dream big. He's on a roll.

sam.farmer@latimes.com

twitter.com/LATimesfarmer

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