Anyone who knows Chris Johnson calls him CJ2K. Plain old CJ before his elevation to the pro ranks, Johnson set the NFL ablaze in his second season, joining an exclusive club that provided the addition to his nickname, and continues to hold several league-best marks as he embarks on a well-earned retirement.
Having spent the bulk of his career with the Tennessee Titans, Johnson played out his string with a year in New York and two-and-a-bit in Arizona before the emergence of David Johnson effectively spelled the end of his time in the desert. Despite revealing that he had an opportunity to possibly continue playing this season, the 33-year old – who ended both the 2015 and ‘16 seasons on injured reserve – admits that it was clear his NFL days were done. He is obviously at peace with his decision, and embracing retirement, enjoying time with the family, but keeping busy with the revelation that he is currently working on a fashion line.
Johnson clearly has what it takes to make a go of whatever he turns his hand to, having had to work his way up from lowly beginnings as a two-star high-school recruit that failed to attract the attention of the big colleges. Picking the AAC’s East Carolina over Eastern Kentucky and Connecticut, he made an immediate impact for the Pirates, but it wasn’t until his senior season that Johnson really came to wider attention, racking up nearly 3,000 all-purpose yards and 24 touchdowns – in a campaign that he had no intention of playing in!
Having also starred in his season-ending bowl game, he put his standout track abilities to good stead, setting a new mark for the 40-yard dash at the Combine – a record that stood until the Bengals’ John Ross ‘broke’ it in 2017 – to elevate himself from potential third-round pick to 24th overall in the 2008 NFL Draft.
Johnson’s career has been well-documented, from rookie-of-the-year contender on a playoff team in his first season – where he formed the quicker half of the ‘Smash and Dash’ tandem with Lendale White – through that record-breaking 2009 campaign and 1,000-yard hauls every year to the end of his time in Tennessee. He earned three Pro Bowl appearances while in Nashville, and left the game with a slew of records to his name, including still holding the all-time NFL mark for scrimmage yards in a season.
You’ve had a fantastic career, and not just the 2009 season, but right back to your time at East Carolina, where you had that amazing senior season…
The plan was to go to college and leave after three years but, in my junior year, I got a turf toe injury that slowed me down, and I was able to get back for my fourth year. I still wanted to leave after that third year, but I thought about it and decided to come back. It turned out for the best as I ended up being a first-round pick.
You went to the NFL Scouting Combine with people talking about you as a second- or third-round pick, but you set that record in the 40…
I knew I was going to run a real fast time there as I’d prepped well in Orlando. It was kind of the perfect situation, where I was able to come back to my home town and train here to get ready for the combine, and then go there and break the record for the fastest 40 time ever. That definitely helped me go in the first round as well.
How much did the interest ramp up after your 4.24secs run? Did you start getting more calls from teams?
I was always getting interest coming off my senior season and the bowl game but, yeah, after the 40, I got even more.
Do you follow the combine each year, to see if people are breaking your record?
I usually watch and I’ve seen John Ross’ run, but I don’t think he really broke [the record]. I think it’s a conspiracy theory, but I’m just going to leave that there…
You then go to the NFL in the 2008 season, drafted by the Titans, second in rookie-of-the-year, get to the playoffs… it must have felt like the NFL was going to be an easy ride. You must have been pleased with how you adapted?
Coming from a small school, people were saying I was going to be a third-down back or whatever, but I always had confidence in myself so being able to go in there and do the things I did; it was just a great situation for me… Tennessee picking me up and being able to go in there as part of a two-headed monster with Lendale, it was great!
Did you always feel you could be that true dual-threat back – running it up the gut, catching it out of the backfield and getting lots of all-purpose yards?
I always knew I was going to be that guy because, all the other guys they said would be able to do it, I was doing the same things they were doing. There was nothing they were doing that I wasn’t, so I always had the confidence and knew that I could do whatever I wanted to do as long as I got paid to work hard at my craft.
Do you remember at what point in the 2009 season that the 2,,000-yard goal came into focus?
I said before the season that I was going to rush for 2000 yards, but no-one believed me. I didn’t really pay attention to it much throughout the season, but I think it was about Week 10 that I already had around 1,300 or 1,400 yards or something like that, and NFL Network started calling me CJ2K and I knew I had the chance of 2,000. When that happened, I started paying more attention to it.
What are you most proud of – the fact that you’re a 2000-yard player or that you still hold the record for the most scrimmage yards in a season?
I think both of them are up there neck-and-neck. The thing about it is that seven people in NFL history have run for 2000 yards, but only one has had 2,509 total yards, and that’s me. No other guy has ever done it.
There are some excellent dual-threat running backs in the NFL at the moment – Alvin Kamara, Le’Veon Bell – so what do you make of the current state of the position?
It’s crazy because, when I was going into the league, all those type of guys – smaller guys, guys catching out of the backfield – they viewed us as third-down backs. It was a knock on a guy who was able to do all that. These days, those guys are praised, they’re the main guys. When they go looking for running backs, they’re looking for guys who can play all three downs. When I was coming in, a guy who could play all three downs was staying in to pick up the pass block but, these days, all three downs is a guy who can stay in and run routes, to be a mismatch against a linebacker. It’s crazy how the league has changed so quickly…
The current Titans team is still in the playoff hunt, but it’s been an up-and-down season. What have you made of Coach Vrabel in his first year in Tennessee?
I think he’s doing a good job right now. They’re fighting hard. Tennessee teams always fight hard but, in order to make the playoffs, they’re going to have to keep rolling those wins out. They can’t be looking too far ahead, but take it one game at a time and win one game at a time and hope that, when they look up, they’re standing right there in the playoffs.
It’s good to see them trying to do it the old-school way, building around those great tackles and doing it in the trenches, when everyone else in the league is going down the passing route…
Back when I played, and even these days, the guys on the offensive line want to run the ball – they don’t like pass blocking too much! I’m not sure what the linemen thinks of the game these days but, back then, they just wanted to get down and dirty and run the ball…
Highest number of total scrimmage yards in one season (2,509 in 2009)
Highest number of total scrimmage yards in one month (968 in November 2009)
Only player in NFL history with a touchdown of 50+ yards, 60+ yards and 90+ yards in one game (vs Texans 2009)
Only player in NFL history with six touchdown runs of over 80 yards
Only player in NFL history with four touchdown runs of over 85 yards
Only player in NFL history to run for three 80-yard touchdown runs in a single season on more than one occasion (2009 and 2012)
First player in NFL history with six consecutive games of 125+ rushing yards and a 5.0+ yards per carry average in each
First player in NFL history with at least 1,900 rushing yards and 400 receiving yards in the same season (2009)
First player in NFL history with at least 1,900 rushing yards and 500 receiving yards in the same season (2009)
First player in NFL history with at least 1,900 rushing yards and 50 receptions in the same season (2009)
This article originally appeared in Issue XLIII of Gridiron magazine – for individual editions or subscriptions, click HERE