Chris Johnson is on the verge of joining an exclusive club among Houston Oilers/Tennessee Titans running backs.
With 42 yards on Sunday against the Cleveland Browns, Johnson will become only the third rookie running back in franchise history to rush for 1,000 yards in his first NFL season, joining Eddie George in 1996 and Earl Campbell in 1978.
Perhaps the scariest part of how good Johnson has been, despite splitting carries about 60/40 with LenDale White, he is on virtually the same pace Campbell was carries-wise as he reached the 1,000-yard threshold. Johnson has 958 yards on 203 rushes, while Campbell as a rookie had 944 yards on 201 attempts before breaking the barrier in his legendary Monday night rampage against the Miami Dolphins, in which he ran for 199 yards and scored four times.
Johnson's position coach Earnest Byner, himself a 14-year NFL veteran running back, puts it this way: "That's big time. You've got Eddie George and Earl Campbell. That's pretty good company there."
Johnson is well aware of the company he would be keeping, perhaps as soon as Sunday, not only with Campbell and George, but with other running backs in past history.
"If you look at all the rookies who come in and run for over 1,000 yards, they all turned to have pretty good careers in the NFL," Johnson said. "That was one of my goals coming in here, and to be so close to it, it feels good."
Johnson's Titans teammates felt they had a back who could potentially be special from the moment he was drafted in the first round last April, despite critics who slammed the pick as Johnson being a "third down/specialist" back.
Johnson has far exceeded that label, showing the ability to run between the tackles as well as on the edge.
Evidence of that came on Thanksgiving Day when Johnson broke off a 58-yard touchdown against the Detroit Lions off a lead draw and raced untouched to the end zone.
"They ran a stunt and brought two backers to the weak side on a blitz," center Kevin Mawae said. "We caught the stunt just right, and as soon as I saw a flash of him, I told the d-lineman, (Shaun) Cody, 'touchdown.' I let him go, because as soon as I saw Chris out of the corner of my eye, I knew it was a touchdown."
Quarterback Kerry Collins saw it from behind the play and was amazed after the handoff.
"His acceleration was just phenomenal," Collins said. "Judging from my standpoint, it didn't look like there was much of a crease there. He really got small and found the hole and accelerated through it. It was pretty much a 'Wow' moment for me."
The wow moments have flashed several times for Johnson, who was compared to Brian Westbrook and Warrick Dunn shortly after draft day. Since that time, the stakes have been raised considerably when it comes to comparisons.
"Probably as close as anyone, I would have to say Tony Dorsett, as much as size, speed, ability to explode and run through small holes and stuff like that, I would have to say Tony D," Byner said, referring to the Cowboys Hall of Famer.
Browns coach Romeo Crennel, whose team faces Johnson Sunday, likens him to former New England and New York Jets great Curtis Martin.
"The thing that stands out is his speed and his burst. He can accelerate. He can run away from people," Crennel said. "He made a jump cut against somebody that I was watching you guys against, he was running and he jumped to his right and then turned those afterburners on and accelerated past people. So that's the thing that really jumps out about him. We had Curtis Martin up in New England and with the Jets and I think he reminds me of Curtis a little bit, probably has more speed."
Mawae has blocked for both and said Johnson has a decided edge in that one important aspect.
"As far as finding the holes and hitting them, I would say absolutely. The only difference is that Chris Johnson has breakaway speed, and Curtis Martin didn't," Mawae said. "With Chris Johnson it's one cut, and he's in the open field. He makes one guy miss and there's nothing but real estate."