Tennessee assistant coach Earnest Byner gave Chris Johnson a DVD featuring some of the NFL's best running backs when he arrived with the Titans, letting the rookie see Earl Campbell, Walter Payton, Barry Sanders and Eddie George in their prime.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee assistant coach Earnest Byner gave Chris Johnson a DVD featuring some of the NFL's best running backs when he arrived with the Titans, letting the rookie see Earl Campbell, Walter Payton, Barry Sanders and Eddie George in their prime.
Now he stands alongside two of them.
Johnson has joined Campbell and George as the only rookies in franchise history to rush for 1,000 yards. With three games remaining, he has a chance to run down both George and Campbell for the team's best debut season.
Johnson said Byner set a high standard for him to target as a rookie.
"I watched that film, and all those guys are great guys. For Eddie George and Earl Campbell, to be among those guys, it feels good," Johnson said.
Campbell, a former No. 1 pick, helped the then-Houston Oilers reach the AFC championship by running for 1,450 yards with 13 touchdowns in 1978. George followed in 1996 with 1,368 yards and eight touchdowns for the Oilers.
The Titans, looking for a serious boost on offense, made Johnson the 24th pick overall in April's draft. Johnson, who runs the 40-yard dash in 4.24 seconds, has provided that boost. He reached 1,000 yards rushing in his 13th game this season and now has 1,094 with eight TDs.
He ranks second in the AFC in yards rushing, behind the New York Jets' Thomas Jones, and leads the AFC in yards from scrimmage with 1,351.
Johnson humbly sees one similarity between himself — at 5-foot-11, 200 pounds — and Campbell and George, who utilized their size to pound defenses.
"Even though I'm still a speed guy, I still like to bring power. Those guys, they broke a lot of tackles, and I feel like I break a lot of tackles too. Being a running back with fast vision, there's going to be a lot of times you're going to have to break tackles and make people miss," Johnson said.
Jeff Fisher coached George for all but one of his NFL seasons and sees Johnson sharing the same toughness George played with.
"And they both show up week after week after week. Their styles are really different. Eddie had a lot more carries than CJ did. I guess in retrospect Eddie handled it very well. What would've happened to Eddie if we'd been able to split carries like we have with CJ and LenDale (White)," Fisher said.
White has 170 carries with the Titans trying to protect both running backs, even to the point of alternating and resting them during practice.
Fullback Ahmard Hall, a Texas native who watched Campbell play and was among the few to show up when George played at the Houston Astrodome, sees splitting carries as something that can help Johnson enjoy a long — and successful — career.
"Everybody loves him. He's a good, humble guy. I've never seen speed in someone, to be able to put that type of speed he has and implement it in football, it's amazing to see him doing it. He's an all-around back. I'm excited. I'm grateful to be able to play with him," Hall said.
That speed is what impresses the Texans (6-7) as they prepare to host Tennessee (12-1) on Sunday.
"He has unbelievable speed and to see him pull away from some of these guys who I know are fast is quite impressive," Houston defensive end Anthony Weaver said.
Johnson's success doesn't surprise Houston coach Gary Kubiak, not after what he saw at the NFL combine. He credits Titans offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger with helping the rookie succeed.
"He gets him in position to make plays, he does what he does best and the kid's responding," Kubiak said.
Campbell was inducted into the Hall of Fame, and George finished his career rushing for more than 10,000 yards and remains the team's all-time career rusher. That's company Johnson wants to continue keeping.
"To start off like this, I feel like I've got a great chance on accomplishing those goals," Johnson said.