AFTER TAKING a pitch and sweeping to the left late in the first quarter on Sunday, Titans running back Chris Johnson flashed a gold-capped smile that was as brilliant as the sun-splashed afternoon at LP Field in Nashville. With nothing but open field in front of him, his first rushing touchdown as a pro was but a few strides away, and he knew it. Johnson high-stepped untouched across the goal line for a one-yard score against the Vikings. Three quarters later he was grinning and high-stepping again after taking a handoff to the right and breaking into the clear, his six-yard TD run wrapping up a 30--17 Tennessee victory and the first 4--0 start in the franchise's 49-year history.
The ease with which Johnson scored was symbolic of his transition to the NFL from East Carolina, where he set or tied 18 school records. He concluded his first month as a pro by leading the Titans in rushing yards (337), yards per carry (5.0) and longest run (51 yards), and his Mach 2 speed and big-play ability serve as the perfect complements to the bruising, straight-ahead style of LenDale White, the running back who hasn't met a goal line that didn't welcome him. (Each of White's league-leading five red-zone rushing touchdowns this season were from two yards or closer.)
Clearly the 5'11", 200-pound Johnson, who was clocked at a blinding 4.24 in the 40 at the NFL combine last February, provides the wow factor for the Titans. Says coach Jeff Fisher, "He's a special guy with special talents, and we just have to find ways to give him the ball."
That's been the story for rookie running backs across the league in 2008. Ten of them were selected in the first three rounds of the draft in April, the most in that span since 1997, and many of them have had an immediate impact on their teams' productivity. Over the first three weeks of the season, rookies piled up 1,843 yards rushing—the highest opening three-week total since '79 when first-year players (including Ottis Anderson and William Andrews) ran for 1,882 yards. Through Sunday, rookies had accounted for half of the 10 carries of 50 or more yards in the NFL this season, and three of the league's top 16 single-game rushing performances. Johnson ranked ninth in the NFL in rushing, with 84.2 yards per game, one spot behind fellow rookie Matt Forte of the Bears at 86.8.
"Everyone knew it was a good group of backs in this draft, and it's a position where rookies can come in and play right away," says Packers G.M. Ted Thompson. "It's the old adage: If you can run in high school and in college, you can run in the pros."
Perhaps, but the sudden and significant output by the rookie backs is based on more than their individual talent. They are getting more carries than their predecessors because of the platoon system now favored by many clubs, who want to keep their backfield corps fresh and healthy. And thanks to the rise in the number of colleges using pro-style offenses, some young backs more easily fit into NFL systems—in particular, in understanding their assignments in the passing game.
Forte, a second-round pick out of Tulane, is among those who have benefited from playing in a variety of offenses in college. He says it took him all of two weeks to feel as if he'd mastered the Chicago playbook because the concepts and some of the terminology were similar to what he had learned in college. That swift acclimation, along with his speed, strength and versatility—in addition to his 347 rushing yards, he has 18 receptions for 147 more—earned him the Bears' starting job by the preseason opener. "From the beginning he never really blew a pass-protection assignment in camp and [organized workouts]," says veteran center Olin Kreutz. "That's hard to do as a rookie running back. I don't want to curse him, but he hasn't made a rookie mistake against some pretty tough defenses that show us a lot of looks. He just doesn't seem like a rookie."
Forte was projected as a first-round pick, but because he and Johnson were the only two senior backs considered solid NFL material, many underclassmen took advantage of the shallow RB pool and declared for the draft. The pros quickly cast their lines, with Darren McFadden of Arkansas going to the Raiders at No. 4, Jonathan Stewart of Oregon to the Panthers at No. 13, Felix Jones of Arkansas to the Cowboys at No. 22 and Rashard Mendenhall of Illinois to the Steelers at No. 23; in the second round Ray Rice of Rutgers was chosen by the Ravens; and in the third round Kevin Smith of Central Florida was picked by the Lions, Jamaal Charles of Texas by the Chiefs and Steve Slaton of West Virginia by the Texans.
Each week at least one of them pops up in the highlights. In the season opener Forte ran for 123 yards and a touchdown to help Chicago beat Indianapolis in the Colts' first game in their new stadium. In Week 2 McFadden led the Raiders to their only win by running for 164 yards and a touchdown at Kansas City, and the explosive Jones had a 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in a victory over the Eagles. The following week Jones jump-started Dallas's win over Green Bay at Lambeau Field with a 60-yard touchdown run. The past two weeks Slaton topped 100 yards rushing and receiving combined, getting 116 on the ground and 124 total against the Titans, and 83 yards receiving and 116 total against the Jaguars. Eight rookie running backs have started at least once this year. McFadden and Forte have started every game.
THAT'S NOT to say that the 2008 rookies are one-man crews. With the exception of Forte and Slaton, the rushing load is being divvied up pretty evenly between these first-year backs and their veteran backfield mates. McFadden, because of an injured toe and his suspect pass protection, is sharing playing time with Michael Bush and Justin Fargas. The Titans' Fisher tends to go with White over Johnson when it's time to control the clock or score from in close (Sunday's game notwithstanding). Stewart is sharing the ball with DeAngelo Williams but is considered the hammer whenever the Panthers need to break through a pile in short-yardage situations. And Mendenhall is now getting regular work because Willie Parker is out with a sprained knee.