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Chris Johnson played for the Tennessee Titans for six seasons, and though the team only made the playoffs once during that time (his rookie season), his presence was a statistical bright spot. In 2009, the nickname ‘CJ2K’ was born, thanks to a season with 2,006 rushing yards. All told, Johnson played in the NFL for ten years for three different teams, amassing 9,651 yards and 64 touchdowns.
According to Johnson, though, his entire career was supposed to begin in Pittsburgh, not Nashville.
Johnson recently went on retired defensive back Bryant McFadden’s podcast and said that the Steelers originally planned to draft him in 2008 with the No. 23 overall pick. In a private workout for the team, head coach Mike Tomlin wanted Johnson to undergo a second MRI in addition to the one he received as part of the combine.
One problem, though: Chris Johnson is very claustrophobic and said it was “all he could do” to get the first MRI. When Johnson refused, Tomlin sent him home, setting in motion one of the more interesting “what ifs” in recent NFL history.
Though a bit undersized, Johnson was the fastest player in the draft that season and proved himself to be an elite rusher in his early NFL seasons. The Titans, though, weren’t very good at the time: the Jeff Fisher era was unceremoniously ending, Vince Young was busting, and the franchise lacked an identity.
On the other hand, Pittsburgh was peaking. Tomlin and the Steelers won the Super Bowl that year (after drafting Rashard Mendenhall out of Illinois over Johnson), with Tomlin winning Coach of the Year honors in just his second season as head coach, and at the young age of 36 years old no less. They also went to the playoffs two more times in the next three seasons, including a Super Bowl appearance in 2010 where they lost to Aaron Rodgers and the Packers.
In other words, the Steelers’ early Tomlin-led run would have coincided perfectly with Chris Johnson’s prime. Had he been able to climb into that MRI machine, he may have a couple rings today, and we would have a completely different sort of memory of the talented rusher. A couple Super Bowl wins to go along with a 2,000 yard season might even put him in Hall of Fame talk, though we’ll never know if he would have ever gotten the carries needed in Pittsburgh to become CJ2K.
Still, though, it’s fun to think about what could have been. Mendenhall was serviceable for the Steelers, but not the same level of talent as Chris Johnson in his prime. The story really goes to show how much luck factors into a player’s career in professional sports, especially the luck of coaching and franchise timing. Johnson will forever be remembered as a good player, but he could have possibly been one of the all-time greats.