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.
"The life span of the back is not as long as it was in the past because of the punishment [at the position]," says Fisher. "Some people use rotations and multiple backs, and because there was a need for backs this year, I think that's why so many were taken."
Last season 12 teams had two backs each rush for 500 or more yards, including five playoff clubs: the Giants, Cowboys, Colts, Jaguars and Seahawks. The Giants became the fifth Super Bowl champion since 2000 to have more than one; in the eight seasons before that only one NFL champion, the 1996 Packers (with Edgar Bennett and Dorsey Levens) fell into that category.
WHEN THE Cowboys selected the speedy and smooth-running Jones, it was with the belief that his style would complement Marion Barber's physicality. Actually, Mendenhall was rated slightly higher than Jones on the team's draft board, but when the first of Dallas's two opening-round choices came up at No. 22, owner Jerry Jones passed on Mendenhall, whose style is similar to Barber's, and went with the more elusive Felix Jones. The pick was second-guessed by the media and within opposing scouting departments, but the carping stopped after the rookie set Cowboys records by scoring a touchdown in each of his first three games and totaling 247 yards on kick returns against the Eagles in Week 2. His 60-yard run from scrimmage against the Packers was the longest by a Dallas rookie since Tony Dorsett in 1977.
"The first day of practice they ran the toss to him, and he didn't look like he's going that fast," says Cowboys linebacker Zach Thomas, a 13-year veteran. "But he ran by everybody. I'm thinking, Either age has caught up to me or this guy's fast. He's so smooth, and the reason I know he's going to get even better is that he's a quiet guy who works hard. And he listens."
The only person who has stopped Felix Jones to this point is Dallas offensive coordinator Jason Garrett, who failed to call Jones's number even once in the Cowboys' first loss of the season, a 26--24 home defeat to the Redskins on Sunday. Afterward coach Wade Phillips explained that the rookie didn't get opportunities because Dallas was playing catch-up, negating his role in the offense. That made no sense, considering Phillips's team trailed by more than a touchdown just twice: 17--7 briefly in the second quarter and 26--17 briefly in the fourth. Jones, who played behind McFadden at Arkansas, says he's content to take his opportunities when they come. Washington knew the danger he posed, kicking away from him on several occasions even though it cost the Skins field position.
It's unlikely that Tennessee's Fisher will make a similar mistake and hold Johnson in reserve. The Titans coach has always preferred a strong running game—only six teams have more rushing yards than Tennessee since the start of the 1995 season (his first full season as coach), with the Titans running for roughly 120 yards per game over that span. White led them with 1,110 yards last year, but his 303 carries were more than Fisher liked. Chris Brown was supposed to have shared more of the load, but he topped 50 yards in only one game and was not re-signed. Tennessee went looking for a replacement.
In Johnson, it appears the Titans got more than they could have wished for. And with Tennessee on top of the highly competitive AFC South, the rookie from East Carolina isn't the only one smiling in Nashville.
"He hasn't made a rookie mistake against some tough defenses," Kreutz says of Forte. "He just DOESN'T SEEM LIKE A ROOKIE."
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STANDOUT ROOKIES AT OTHER POSITIONS
Eagles, WR-PR (49th overall pick, Cal)
• FORGET THE dunderheaded mistake against Dallas; Jackson, with his 22 catches, has been the big-play weapon Donovan McNabb clamored for in the off-season. A versatile threat at Cal, Jackson already has two plays (a punt return and a reception) of 60 yards or more as a pro, and he has seven other plays of at least 19 yards. The 5'10" 175-pounder is one reason the Eagles are averaging 292.8 passing yards, nearly 30 better than their '04 Super Bowl team.
Broncos, LT (12th, Boise State)
• REMARKABLY, Jay Cutler's passer rating is 10.3 points higher than over his first two years, even with a rookie protecting his blind side. The 6'6", 317-pound Clady has been superb at helping keep the QB on his feet, allowing Cutler (who's been sacked just twice) to hook up with Brandon Marshall and another rookie, Eddie Royal, seemingly at will. When Denver runs, Clady has proved equally adept at seal blocks. The Broncos are averaging 6.16 yards per attempt when running to his side.
Jets, CB (113th, San Jose State)
• HIS PEDESTRIAN 4.64 time in the 40 was on display when the Chargers' Antonio Gates burned him for a Week 3 TD, but the fourth-round pick has otherwise been stalwart in a maturing New York secondary. In Week 1, the calculating, patient Lowery snuffed out a potential game-tying drive by breaking up two passes from the Jets' two-yard line; against San Diego he had two nice pass deflections; and in Sunday's win over Arizona, Lowery had nine tackles and forced a fumble.
Dolphins, LT (1st, Michigan)
• CREDIT MIAMI'S staff for Long's turnaround after a rough Week 1 outing against the Jets. The Dolphins reconfigured the offense in Week 3 to suit Long's strengths as a run blocker, interspersing a gimmick formation that had him used as sort of a second right tackle. From it, he sprang Ronnie Brown on a 62-yard scoring run with a textbook seal on Patriots end Ty Warren. In the same game, Long keyed a 15-yard Brown score by neutralizing five-time Pro Bowl end Richard Seymour.
Photograph by Al Tielemans
UNTOUCHABLE Johnson (28) flashed his breakaway form—and celebratory smile—on his second TD against the Vikings.
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MICHAEL J. LEBRECHT II/1DEUCE3 PHOTOGRAPH
THREE FOR THE SHOW First-year backs (from left) Jones, McFadden and Forte benefited from pro-style college offenses.
ED WOLFSTEIN/ICON SMI
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SCOTT BOEHM/GETTY IMAGES
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JASON E. MICZEK/REUTERS (STEWART)
BIG HIT Stewart, the first-rounder out of Oregon, is filling the power-back role in the Panthers' two-pronged ground attack.
NELSON CHENAULT/US PRESSWIRE (JACKSON)
GREG ASHMAN/CAL SPORT MEDIA
JASON BRIDGE/US PRESSWIRE (SLATON)
CLEAN SLATE Houston tapped Slaton early this season, one of eight rookie backs to have started at least once in '08.
STEVE MITCHELL/US PRESSWIRE (LONG)
JASON MILLER/US PRESSWIRE