- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 1, 2009

“I about peed in my pants,” Bud Adams, the Tennessee Titans’ octogenarian owner, told a Nashville newspaper Sunday. He was talking about his team’s 99-yard drive in the final minutes to beat Arizona, but he could just as easily have been referring to the recent play of his otherworldly young running back, Chris Johnson.

Be advised, football fans: What we’re seeing with Johnson is a once-in-a-generation kind of thing, maybe even a Halley’s Comet kind of thing. Running backs aren’t supposed to run 85 yards (or more) for a touchdown as routinely as he’s been doing it this season - three times in all. Not in the NFL, anyway. A receiver or a kick returner might have a year like that but never a back, never a guy who has to run over, around and through 11 Angry Men en route to the end zone.

But there was Johnson breaking a 91-yarder against Houston in Week 2, an 89-yarder against Jacksonville in Week 8 and an 85-yarder against the Cardinals this past weekend. And - who knows? - with almost a third of the season left, he might not be done. He certainly hasn’t shown any signs of travel fatigue (or whatever a runner gets when he goes the length of the field). Indeed, he’s rushed for at least 125 yards in his last six games, tying the record set by Hall of Famers Earl Campbell (1980) and Eric Dickerson (1984).

(That’s right, Barry Sanders never did it. Neither did Jim Brown, O.J. Simpson, Walter Payton or Emmitt Smith.)

At his current pace, Johnson will finish the season with 2,036 yards. That would make him just the sixth 2,000-yard rusher in league history. He’s also averaging 6.43 yards an attempt, which is pretty amazing. To find a 1,000-yard running back who’s averaged more, you’d have to go back to Beattie Feathers of the Bears in 1934. (And Beattie had a fullback named Bronko Nagurski blocking for him, so it’s not really a fair comparison.)

Convinced yet that Johnson might be a back for the ages?

It’s his speed that sets him apart. He’s like something off the Boeing or Lockheed assembly line. It’s hard in the NFL to look that much faster than everybody else, because everybody else is so darn fast. But Johnson is that rare back who runs like a 100-meter man.

Most sprinters tend to wind up either (a.) catching passes or (b.) trying to prevent others from catching passes. Running backs, after all, need to be a little sturdier to withstand the beating, and sturdiness generally translates into extra poundage - and slower 40 times.

But Johnson still looks like he just stepped off the track. He’s a sleek 5-foot-11, 200 pounds, and he needs only a couple of steps, it seems, to accelerate to hyperdrive. (Think Tony Dorsett - only quicker.) You watch him darting hither and yon and, well, he just doesn’t strike you as the workhorse type. Somehow, though, he keeps getting up, keeps carrying 20 to 25 times a week and coming back for more.

So how come, in this TV-saturated era, Johnson sneaked up on us? Why didn’t we see him coming?

Answer: Because all along the way, people have jumped to the same erroneous conclusions about him - that he was a Track Guy, that he wasn’t built to play running back, that he wasn’t hard-nosed enough. He wasn’t heavily recruited out of high school in Orlando, Fla., and only as a senior at East Carolina, when he led the nation in all-purpose yards, did he begin to arouse the curiosity of NFL scouts.

Then he went to the combine and ran the 40 in an electronically timed 4.24 seconds - faster than anyone had ever run it - and everybody went, “Whoa.”

Still, there were plenty of reservations about him, even though the Titans wound up taking him with the 24th pick. One scouting service offered the following critique:

“Two years as a fulltime starter and two years [2004, 2006] as a part-time starter. A track speedster [who] is not a tackle-to-tackle runner. May project as a receiver for some teams. … Stops legs on contact. Elusive with good hands. Has a burst to turn the corner. Small hands. Average running instincts. Durability is a concern because of his build and running style. … Lacks the strength to move the pile and carry 20-25 times a game. Similar to Tatum Bell. … Question effort and will. … Third/fourth round.”

Who would have guessed that, two years later, Johnson would be competing with the Vikings’ Adrian Peterson for the title of the NFL’s Best Back? Right now, in fact, he appears to have the edge. Not only is he a bigger breakaway threat than Peterson, he’s also a more productive receiver. Earlier this month against Buffalo, he caught nine passes for 100 yards (to go along with 132 yards rushing).

(My favorite Johnson stat, though, is this underappreciated one: He rushed for 128 yards at New England in Week 6. Why is it my favorite? Because it’s the most yardage ever gained by a back, I’d be willing to bet, in a 59-0 loss.)

Johnson is one of two great stories developing down in Nashville. The other is his Titans team, left for dead at 0-6, climbing back into the playoff picture with five straight wins. If Tennessee makes it as a wild card - and Johnson gets his 2,000 yards - how can he not be the league’s MVP?

You’ve gotta admit, he’s not bad for a back with “average running instincts,” a back who “may project as a receiver.”

• Dan Daly can be reached at ddaly@washingtontimes.com.

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