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Posted: Thursday November 12, 2009 11:43AM; Updated: Thursday November 12, 2009 11:44AM
Kerry J. Byrne

Yo, Adrian: Titans' Johnson stakes claim as best running back in NFL

Story Highlights

Chris Johnson is averaging 6.66 yards per carrry this season

Johnson's specialty is the big play, with 12 runs of 20-plus yards

Adrian Peterson has the hype, but Johnson is pro football's best RB

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Through eight games, Chris Johnson leads the NFL in rushing with 959 yards, despite ranking 10th in attempts with 144.
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Adrian Peterson is widely considered the best running back in the league.

The Cold, Hard Football Facts say he's not.

They say that it's time for AP to step aside and make room atop the RB totem pole for Tennessee superman Chris Johnson.

The big news is not that Johnson leads the NFL in rushing yards (959) or that he's more than 100 yards ahead of the No. 2 guy (Cedric Benson, 837) or that he's 175 yards ahead of Peterson (784).

The big news is that Tennessee's second-year man averages a mind-boggling 6.66 yards every time he carries the ball this year. He's cranked out his 959 yards on just 144 attempts. Peterson, for his part, averages a solid 4.81 YPA (163 carries for 784 yards).

If Johnson's average per attempt seems unusually high, it should. Dan Towler was the last running back who ran the ball at least 100 times in a season and averaged more than Johnson's 6.66 YPA. Towler rushed 126 times for 854 yards (6.78 YPA) for the 1951 NFL champion L.A. Rams.

Even the great Jim Brown, the best running back in history, never quite matched 6.66 YPA. In Brown's most prolific year, 1963, he carried the ball 291 times for 1,863 yards (6.40 YPA).

Recent run of success

Johnson has been absolutely scorching over the past three games, the brightest spot for a team that began 0-6 before he led them to consecutive victories.

He rushed 25 times for 135 yards (5.4 YPA) and two touchdowns in Tennessee 's 34-27 win over San Francisco last week. He ran 24 times for 228 yards (9.5 YPA) and a pair of scores in Tennessee 's 30-13 win over Jacksonville the previous week.

Even in Tennessee's 59-0 loss to the Patriots, the biggest defeat any team has suffered in 33 years, Johnson was on a different planet than the rest of his mates: he rushed 17 times for 128 yards (7.5 YPA) on a snow-covered field in Foxboro.

The big play specialist

Throughout history, the average ballcarrier averages 4.0 YPA. The average team averages 4.0 YPA. Only the occasional big play separates the average guys from the prolific guys, such as Barry Sanders, Johnson and Peterson. And no back right now produces big, explosive plays like CJ.

Twelve of Johnson's 144 attempts (1 in 12) have gone for 20-plus yards; Peterson is second, with eight runs of 20-plus. Six of Johnson's 144 attempts (1 in 24) have gone for 40-plus yards; Frank Gore and Maurice Jones-Drew are second, with three runs each of 40-plus. Two of Johnson's 144 attempts have gone longer than 80 yards: a 91-yard TD scamper against the Texans and a 89-yard TD run against the Jaguars. They're the two longest runs of the year. Gore and Jones-Drew each boast 80-yard TD runs.

An explosive early career

The pigskin public, not to mention the Cold, Hard Football Facts, should have focused a little more attention on Johnson after his great rookie season of 2008. He quietly ran 251 times for 1,228 yards (4.89 YPA). But his output was more or less lost in the noise over Tennessee 's 13-3 season, the revival of Kerry Collins and the performance of the Titans defense.

But halfway through his second year, Johnson has a very early track record that rivals or exceeds that of any player at his position in decades. In fact, here's how Johnson stacks up against the explosive Peterson halfway through their respective second seasons (2007 and eight games in 2008 for AP; 2008 and eight games in 2009 for CJ).

Player Attempts Yards YPA TDs
Johnson 395 2,187 5.54 15
Peterson 414 2,164 5.23 18

Johnson has not carried the ball as often, but he has produced more yards and a greater average per attempt. He's also used more as a pass catcher. He's already caught 64 passes for 422 yards and two touchdowns in his career. Peterson, with an extra season under his belt, has caught 59 passes for one touchdown, though he has been more prolific, with 582 yards receiving.

Overcoming the hype

Both Peterson and Johnson were first-round picks -- Peterson No. 7 overall in 2007, Johnson No. 24 overall in 2008. So NFL talent evaluators believed seriously that both could play at a high level in the pros. But Peterson enjoyed the fortune of entering the NFL with far more acclaim: he was a Heisman candidate at football-factory Oklahoma. Johnson, for his part, toiled away with a fraction of the acclaim at unheralded East Carolina.

The pigskin pundits were ready to anoint AP the best back in the league as soon as he appeared to live up to the hype (which he has). But Johnson did not enjoy the same kind of hype. And it always takes pundits time to catch up with reality when they don't have the compass called hype to guide them.

But if Johnson had entered the league with the same kind of name recognition, there'd be no doubt today that he, not Peterson, is pro football's best, most dangerous and most exciting ballcarrier. is dedicated to cutting-edge analysis and to the "gridiron lifestyle" of beer, food and football. Email comments to



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