CHRIS JOHNSON has made a career of running for daylight, but in June 2012 he was plunged into the darkest kind of uncertainty. His twin sons, Chris Jr. and Kaden, were born two months premature, and in the days following, their weights dipped as low as two pounds apiece. The infants spent two months in the NICU of a hospital in Johnson's hometown of Orlando. "I prayed and prayed for them," says Johnson, who along with the boys' mother, visited every day until their release. When the 26-year-old first-time father finally got to hold his offspring in his meaty arms, he says, they were so small that he was afraid they might break.
This is an article from the Sept. 9, 2013 issue
The praying was nothing new. Since he was a kid, Johnson says he has prayed every night before bed, a ritual instilled in him by the woman he called Grandma Sweet. Gurtha Pruitt lived to be 100, and Johnson credits her with the good genes that have kept him from missing a game due to injury in his NFL career. "I used to pray about football, about not getting hurt and about having good games," says Johnson. "Now I mostly pray for the boys to stay healthy."
Chris Jr. and Kaden have since grown into active, happy little dudes. Last season they attended one Titans game (but slept pretty much the whole time), and in August they turned out for a preseason matchup against the Redskins, smiling and waving at Dad from the stands. "That was sweet, man," says Johnson. "I won't ever forget that."
His sons' improved health is just one of the many reasons that the NFL's most enigmatic gamebreaker is more at peace than he has been in years. Last season Tennessee's offensive line needed its own intensive care unit: From Week 14 on, only one starter was still in his original position. The depth chart was so ravaged that the team trotted out center Kyle DeVan, who a few weeks earlier had been working as a volunteer graduate assistant at Oregon State. But this off-season the Titans invested heavily in upgrading that infrastructure, drafting Alabama All-America Chance Warmack (guard) in the first round, and signing free agents Andy Levitre (guard), Delanie Walker (tight end) and Shonn Greene (running back, short-yardage specialist—what Tennessee has been lacking since trading LenDale White in 2010).
This additional 1,100 pounds of beef underscores a philosophical shift by the Titans: After two wobbly years, they are abandoning a pass-happy offense and trying to reestablish their old identity as a team that dominates on the ground. Baby-faced Dowell Loggains, a 32-year-old boy wonder, was promoted to offensive coordinator last November in a midseason shake-up and has already earned a reputation for imaginative play-calling. Having been with Tennessee since the team drafted Johnson in 2008, he is the running back's biggest fan in the organization, and the pair have a rare bond. Getting to draw up plays for Johnson is "like being handed the joystick to a video game," says Loggains.
Time has also healed most of the wounds from Johnson's bruising 2011 contract flap, a holdout that seriously compromised his relationship with fans in Nashville (but which resulted in a six-year, $55.26 million deal). Johnson's $10 million salary this year makes him the team's highest-paid player and the league's second-highest-paid running back, behind Adrian Peterson ($11.25 million). Johnson certainly enjoys his toys, like his Maybach sedan—"No car seats in that one," he says with a laugh—but for him the security is as important as the money. He has three years remaining on the deal, giving him rare peace of mind at a position that grinds up its young, Pink Floyd style.
Take the new line personnel and an offense tailored to his unique skill set, and combine it with all that guaranteed money, and Johnson is "as relaxed as I've ever seen him," says receiver Nate Washington, his best friend on the team. "For all the success CJ has had, he's been through a lot of stuff on and off the field. Now the only thing on his mind is football. Mark it down: He's gonna have a monster year."
But Johnson will turn 28 on Sept. 23, and it's natural to wonder if he's lost half a step. Hearing this, Washington can't contain his laughter. "You're joking, right?"
Indeed, earlier this afternoon in practice Johnson had turned a routine sweep into a piece of performance art, juking, jiving, spinning and then cutting inside the left tackle with a cartoonish burst of speed. Among those whooping and hollering on the sideline were Greene and fellow running back Jackie Battle.
"I dream about making those cuts," said Battle.
"Every time I see that, my ankles hurt," added Greene.
First-year running backs coach Sylvester Croom was eavesdropping, and in his basso profundo he intoned, "Guys, we're gifted to watch something special every time we come out here."
SOME THINGS never change around Nashville. Taylor Swift is going through a dramatic breakup. The beers are cold at Tootsies. And at some point during the summer—it was on June 5 this year—Johnson will announce his intention to rush for 2,000 yards in the upcoming season. That magic number has defined and tormented him since 2009, when he went for 2,006 in just his second year out of East Carolina.
"I can't rush for 2,000 yards, then come back and say I want to rush for 1,500," says Johnson (who, it should be noted, hasn't reached even that goal in any of the last three seasons). "That's slackin', man. Two K has to be the goal."
Not for nothing is Johnson's nickname CJ2K, and his annual announcement sets eyes rolling among Titans beat writers, one of whom says, "He's always talking about his personal goals, but what he's never understood is that it makes him sound selfish."
Johnson has been hearing this for years, and he has a tart rebuttal: "When Adrian Peterson talks about rushing for 2,500 yards, he's ambitious. He's hungry. When I talk about [2,000 yards], everybody says I'm selfish. It is what it is what it is."
Johnson accurately points out that he does most of his best work in victories. Over his 79 career games, the Titans are 24--9 when he rushes for more than 100 yards and 18--28 when he doesn't. They're also 7--1 when Johnson goes for 150-plus, which is why coach Mike Munchak openly supports all the talk about 2,000. "Good for him; I like that hunger," says the third-year coach. "That relentless drive is what makes CJ who he is. We have a young quarterback [Jake Locker], so the more yards CJ gets, the more he's helping this team win."
In the toxic fallout from the holdout—he missed almost the entire 2011 preseason and had the worst year of his career, with 1,047 yards and just four touchdowns—Johnson was criticized by fans and media as just another new-jack athlete, bloated with self-importance. But inside the Tennessee organization he has always been revered for what are euphemistically referred to as intangibles. Croom, an NFL assistant for nearly three decades, calls Johnson "a coach's dream" and applauds his understanding of the game, his astuteness about assignments and his knowledge of "what defenses are doing and how to counteract." His football IQ, says Croom, "is tremendous."
Teammates and foes alike respect the ferocity with which Johnson takes on blitzers, even at a relatively petite 5'11", 191 pounds. And yet Johnson talks in a whisper among teammates, so shy, he says, that he's never been moved to offer a locker room pep talk. During games he's virtually mute; a canvassing of three opposing teams from 2012 failed to turn up a single instance of trash talk. "Chris don't say anything, man," says Lions linebacker Stephen Tulloch. "He comes in and works. He takes the hit, gets back up. That's what he is."
Loggains could wax all day about the misperceptions that dog Johnson. With a nod to the running back's dreadlocks, gold teeth and a mural's worth of tattoos, Loggains says, "People see the exterior and, yeah, he's not the most polished kid in the world, so they misjudge him," he says. "But he's one of my favorite players. Everything is Yes, sir or No, sir. I've never seen him back-talk a coach or get into any kind of confrontation with a teammate. He works hard, does what you ask, shows up every Sunday. I've seen him at 10--0 and at 0--6, and he was the same kid."
Johnson's sense of the collective goes back to his senior year at Olympia High in Orlando, when he missed seven games with a broken left leg. He stood on the sideline for every one of those games in full pads, with his helmet on, just so he could feel like part of the team. Ten years later he has enthusiastically mentored Greene throughout the preseason, even as the two competed for carries, and he put in extra reps with Locker in order to groove their timing on a variety of screens and check-downs in Loggains's new playbook. Last year Johnson caught only 36 passes, the lowest total of his career, and his longest reception went for a puny 22 yards. "That's going to change," says Munchak. "We're committed to doing some new things to get him out in space where he can do damage."
And once he busts free, Johnson will have an array of new moves, thanks to extensive film study this summer. "I've got this little one-two step I've been working on," says Johnson. "Came in handy against Washington." Here he's referring to his 58-yard touchdown run in the preseason opener—his second live touch in 2013—when poor Bacarri Rambo, a highly touted rookie free safety, got deked out of his cleats in the middle of the field.
"Here's a veteran guy who's likely to go down as one of the best ever at his position, and he still loves to be coached," says Croom. "Not once has he balked and said, Well, this is the way I've always done it. In the past I've had that from guys who are, shall we say, of a lot lesser talent."
Johnson's open-mindedness has him operating under a new theory when he hits the edge. In the past he has typically steered toward the sideline, confident that he could outrace anyone on the field. But that's gotten old; defenders "know my speed," he says, "and when I break the line of scrimmage, the DBs turn and run sooner to get the angle, using the sideline to trap me." On Croom's advice, Johnson has, he says, "spent all camp working on running straight at the guy, away from the sideline. I'm getting the angle on him. He won't be able to use the sideline no more."
This Johnson demonstrates using tabletop items in the Titans' cafeteria. And once the pepper shaker gets past the salt, he says, "Can't no one catch me now."
JOHNSON WAS FAMOUS for his speed even before he first set foot on an NFL field, having run the 40-yard dash in 4.24 seconds at the 2008 scouting combine, tied with Rondel Melendez for the fastest time since the league went to electronic timing in 1999. Last year he busted three touchdown runs of 80 yards or longer—giving him six for his career, twice as many as any other player in NFL history—yet there is the pervasive feeling in football circles that he is not quite as explosive as he used to be. Mentioning this might be the only way to get a rise out of Johnson. "That's crazy talk," he snaps.
Johnson runs so effortlessly that it belies the hard work he puts into maintaining his burst. Every summer he trains five days a week for as many as five hours at a time with Tom Shaw, a former Patriots assistant who, as the Svengali of speed, makes fast guys run faster by propelling them with bungee cords or by having them sprint downhill. This summer he put Johnson on a graded track. Johnson responded by running the 40 in a face-melting 3.72 seconds.
"Chris is as quick and powerful as he's ever been," says Shaw. "That's a testament to his desire and his will to maintain his gift."
In mid-July, Shaw measured Johnson's vertical leap at 41½ inches, which would have been the second best among the 333 athletes at this year's combine, behind only Seahawks rookie running back Christine Michael. (Let's remember to check back on those hops 6,888 yards into Michael's NFL career.) And in the week before Johnson left for training camp, Shaw timed him at 4.28 in a level-ground 40.
"People who think CJ has gotten slower ... I guess they're right, he has—by exactly four one-hundredths of a second," Shaw says with a chuckle. "On his worst day he's still the fastest running back in the league."
And yet too often last year Johnson went nowhere. His season total of 1,243 yards included games of four, 17, 24, 24, 28, 44, 51 and 56 yards, making him a pariah among fantasy owners. For all he's accomplished, Johnson still has rabbit ears for such criticism. "I saw on ESPN the other day a list of the top 10 fantasy backs, and I wasn't on it," he says. "They trippin'."
If his speed is still there, then the seemingly obvious explanation for Johnson's being a nonfactor in so many games—in 2012, at least—has to lie in the upheaval on the offensive line, to say nothing of Locker's struggles as he battled injuries in his first year as a starter. Munchak says he could feel his running back's frustrations as the losses (and the body count) mounted. "He's the leader of this team, and when we're struggling, people look to him to make plays," says Munchak. "Given the leakage on the line, he didn't have the confidence that plays were going to develop correctly. It got to the point where he was trying to hit a home run every time. This year I can already see he's more patient."
The revamped line is still coalescing, but Johnson, too, has felt a difference in the preseason. "Last year we were getting pushed back," he says. "Now we're doing the pushing. We've reestablished the line of scrimmage. That's huge."
With the continued maturation of Locker, and with a blossoming young receiving corps, Tennessee seems destined to improve on last season's 6--10 finish. Johnson, prognosticator that he is, predicts a spot in the playoffs, which he hasn't sniffed since he was a rookie. He was knocked out in the second quarter of his lone postseason appearance, a 13--10 loss to the Ravens, with a right-ankle injury, the only time in his career that he has been chased from a game. (He had already rolled up 72 yards and a touchdown.) Johnson knows that the easiest way to change how he is viewed by the football republic is to lead his team to postseason success. "The ring's the thing now," he says. "That's what matters."
In the meantime he will continue to take a Sharpie to the record books. Last year Johnson became only the eighth player in NFL history to top 1,000 yards in his first five seasons. Four of his predecessors are in the Hall of Fame—Eric Dickerson, Barry Sanders, Tony Dorsett, Curtis Martin—and LaDainian Tomlinson will soon join them. But two others, Corey Dillon and Eddie George, didn't sustain that furious pace, and it's highly unlikely they'll make it to Canton.
Johnson is acutely aware of his place in history and already thinking about his legacy. "I'm not ever satisfied," he says. "If I rush for two thousand yards this year, I'll want to do it again next year. I use a lot of different things to motivate myself. I look at what Adrian Peterson does, what Arian Foster does—I know I'm competing with those guys every Sunday. But I'm also competing with the Emmitt Smiths, the Barry Sanders, the Eric Dickersons. That's how high my standards are."
Those standards have only gotten loftier now that Johnson's fan base has grown to include two little boys. "I'm very motivated to still be an elite back when my sons are old enough to appreciate it," says Johnson. "I want them to know how fast their daddy is."
He may be poised for a vintage season, but this proudest of runners is leery of being celebrated too lustily: "Don't say I'm back, because I never went away."
Each Thursday, Peter King tells you everything you need to know in his Window into the Weekend video. Get more picks, predictions and top story lines to watch for in 2013, plus up-to-the-minute fantasy football advice, at TheMMQB.com