Titans running back Chris Johnson changed his nickname from "Dash" to "Every Coach's Dream" in the offseason. He just as easily could have gone with "Every Opponent's Nightmare."
Johnson has been ridiculously good this season. The second-year pro is within reach of breaking league records for yards rushing and yards from scrimmage, and his three scoring runs of 85 yards or longer this year are more than any other back has in his career.
Not surprisingly, Johnson's success has sparked a playful debate about whether he has supplanted Minnesota's Adrian Peterson as the game's top back. Peterson was the consensus No. 1 after winning the rushing title last season and ranking first in the NFC as a rookie in 2007. But ...
Johnson leads the league with 1,626 yards rushing and is averaging an astounding 6.0 yards a carry. He has gained 2,017 yards from scrimmage and recorded a staggering seven touchdowns of at least 50 yards, including five on the ground.
"If CJ's not as good as Adrian right now, he's fast approaching," says defensive end Chris Long, whose Rams are one of three teams to face both backs this year (Arizona and San Francisco are the others). "A lot of guys with speed just want to hit the edge, but he'll be patient and wait to hit the hole. You can tell he's been working on his game. It's scary to think how he's going to get better and better every year."
SI.com asked six personnel people and six players -- who faced both backs this year -- which one they would take if starting a team today. Everyone agreed that you couldn't wrong with either, with one GM saying: "That's like, Tom Brady or Peyton Manning? You'd be happy with either of them."
Interestingly, the two groups were unanimous in which player they would select: The players chose Johnson; the general managers and personnel directors took Peterson.
"In a heartbeat," one GM said of Peterson, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "He hits it hard, runs with urgency and has very good vision and speed-size combo."
Added another: "Give me either one. I'll take half of one. But if I had to choose, I probably would lean toward Peterson because it seems to me he can do it all. ... I also like that he's a punishing runner. He'll bring a dimension, a demeanor to the offense."
Peterson is a 6-foot-1, 217-pound bruiser who seems to seek out contact as if it were the goal line. Johnson, who is listed at 5-11 and 200 pounds, is a patient runner who, while physical when needed, seeks to make a defender or two miss, then flip on his 4.24 speed.
"If [Johnson] gets to the second level of the defense, no one in this league is going to catch him," said Rams end Leonard Little.
Johnson's speed is one of the primary reasons so many players went with him. There was almost a sense of helplessness, for lack of a better word, as Long talked about Johnson scoring on a 39-yard run and 66-yard reception Sunday against the Rams.
"Adrian is great," Long said, "but Chris Johnson can go the distance on any play and you won't get a hand on him. With AP, he's going to do something crazy where he runs somebody over or puts a disgusting move on them, stiff-arming somebody off their feet. But people don't touch CJ. It's really amazing."
That's among the reasons Cardinals defensive tackle Darnell Dockett sided with Johnson. The others? Let him count the ways.
"One, Chris Johnson doesn't have as many weapons around him but he still makes plays," Dockett said. "You can look at the Titans' line and know they're going to run the ball, and he still gets it done. Two, Tennessee's line is good but it's not quite as good as Minnesota's. Three, he doesn't fumble like AP."
Peterson has lost five fumbles, Johnson one.
Johnson has been so good, so consistent, that he has outrushed Peterson in every quarter despite the two backs never being separated by more than seven carries in any quarter. He also has been nearly as good in short-yardage situations: CJ has converted on six of eight third-and-2s or less (75 percent), while Peterson is 15 of 19 (79 percent) in such situations. Interestingly, Johnson has no negative rushes in those situations, while Peterson has three.
The debate about which back you'd take is all in fun, but Colts general manager Bill Polian had to make a real-life call at the 1999 draft. Indianapolis had the fourth pick and was committed to taking a running back after quarterbacks went 1-2-3. The choices were Heisman winner Ricky Williams or Miami standout Edgerrin James. Polian chose James.
"The first thing you want to do is compare the measurables," Polian said in explaining his thought process in general when faced with such a decision. "That's particularly true at the skill positions because most people say bigger is always better; but that's not necessarily always true. The second thing would be to compare the injury history. The thing thing you do is try to determine what the system fit is; how well does the particular player fit your system? The fourth thing you do is say, what special gifts does this guy have? Is he really special in some fashion or another that sets him apart from the other guy."
Polian did not disclose whether he would take Peterson or Johnson, but he did sum up the feelings of everyone involved when he said: "You couldn't go wrong with either guy."