HONOLULU -- The first player to rush for 2,000 yards in an NFL season, way back in 1973, was a guy nicknamed O.J.
So could a tailback whose shorthand moniker is L.J. become the first player in NFL history to run for 2,500 yards in a season, a mind-boggling number that might be too impractical to expect from any human being? According to some of Larry Johnson's blockers, here for the Pro Bowl game on Sunday evening, the Kansas City tailback might just be the guy to perform the unthinkable feat.
"With what he did last year, once he got to play [regularly], I don't know if it really is impossible," said Chiefs guard Brian Waters, a crushing in-line blocker who is making a second straight Pro Bowl appearance. "Put the ball in his hands enough times and he is going to gain a lot of yards. I mean, the sky's the limit for L.J., really."
Johnson's 1,750 rushing yards in 2005 were the third most in the NFL, behind just Seattle's Shaun Alexander and the New York Giants' Tiki Barber. But L.J. doesn't much worry about records. And he doesn't fret anymore, it seems, about limits, either.
The latter represents a significant change of mind-set for Johnson, who started only three games in his first two seasons and who chafed at the lack of playing time under Dick Vermeil. The Chiefs' former coach did not favor choosing Johnson in the first round of the 2003 NFL draft. In 2003 and 2004, he totaled only 140 carries and gained just 666 yards, but Johnson won't be bedeviled again by such idleness.
Less than two weeks into the tenure of Herm Edwards, the Chiefs' new coach apprised Johnson that he, and not Priest Holmes, who continues to rehabilitate after concluding a second straight season on the injured reserve list, will go to camp as the team's starter. So with the football to be in his hands from the outset of the 2006 campaign, Johnson is girding for a challenging offseason.
While the three-year veteran has always prepared diligently, Johnson acknowledged early this week that he will drive himself even harder between now and the start of camp. There will be a short respite after Sunday's game, a contest in which Johnson figures to log plenty of carries as the youngest member of the AFC tailback corps; then the former Penn State star will immerse himself in a grueling training program.
"I have to approach [next season] differently," Johnson said after a midweek practice. "I mean, a new coach comes in and tells you that you're his man, and really puts the running game on you, that's how you have to react. In the past, I thought I worked pretty hard in the offseason. But in the back of my mind, maybe I was thinking, like, 'Yeah, but I'm still going to get the ball just five or six times [per game].' Now I know I'm going to be the main guy. That means I have to work harder and be an even bigger team leader. With my personality, that means leading by example, because I'm a lot more about deeds than I am words."
If his accomplishments in 2005 could be transformed into words, Johnson would have performed a one-man filibuster. The back who Vermeil once publicly chided for still "being in diapers" came a long way, baby, in '05.
There was a time not that long ago when one would have been labeled absurd for suggesting Johnson might belong in a class with these five tailbacks: Barber, Alexander, Edgerrin James, LaDainian Tomlinson and Warrick Dunn.
That quintet has averaged 92.2 career starts, while Johnson has just a dozen in three years. But there is no question anymore of his pedigree.
Although he started only nine games in 2005, not moving into the lineup until Holmes was lost to neck and back injuries that might still threaten his career, Johnson registered big numbers. In his nine starts, Johnson went over 100 yards every game, with seven outings of 130 or more yards and a pair of 200-yard performances. During the starting stretch, Johnson carried 261 times for 1,351 yards and 16 touchdowns. In only one of the nine games did he fail to score, and he had six multiple-touchdown games, with two contests in which he scored three times.
Extrapolate those numbers over a 16-game season and here's what you get: 464 carries, 2,402 yards, and 28 touchdowns.
OK, so hand any back the ball 464 times in a season -- the league record for rushes is 410, established by Jamal Anderson of Atlanta in 1998, and only three men have ever posted 400 carries in a year -- and his legs might fall off. But Johnson embraces the workhorse tag and feels he gets better with more work in a game, and opponents concur.
"He's just a great downhill runner" said Denver middle linebacker Al Wilson. "He runs with excellent lean and he's got the qualities that every great back [possesses]. He runs hard, finishes off every run the way you're supposed to, and bleeds yardage. He doesn't take losses and, while you might hold him for a while to [1- or 2-yard gains] it's just a matter of time until he's going to break loose. He's really got it all."
Indeed, much overlooked is Johnson's excellence as a receiver; he had 33 catches in 2005, with 27 coming in his nine starts. His 10.4-yard average per catch was the second-best in the NFL among running backs with more than 25 receptions. Critics have contended that Johnson is a poor blocker, but according to the past Kansas City coaching staff, he is a willing blocker, with improving skills in that underrated but critical area.
That said, the Chiefs are primarily paying Johnson to run behind someone else's blocks, and the Kansas City linemen, one of the premier quintets in the league, love the results he nets from even the tiniest crease. Johnson is a different kind of runner than Holmes -- and now, instead of being the change-of-pace back, he will be the back setting the pace for Kansas City in the future.
With Vermeil in retirement, Johnson isn't inclined to speak ill of him, but there remains a bit of a sore spot about the manner in which he was used, or perhaps misused, in the past. Asked how he managed to persevere during those periods when he was largely a spectator in the NFL's most high-octane offense, Johnson shrugged. Prodded about how such a talented back could essentially rot on the vine for two seasons, even given the brilliance of Holmes when he was healthy, Johnson offered only a wan smile.
"I don't know," Johnson said. "It was like that in college, too, where Joe Paterno didn't start me full-time until my senior year. Maybe there's something about those old coaches, huh, who are kind of set in their ways. But, look, I've demonstrated that, if you give me the ball, I'm going to do something with it. I'm going to run for a lot of yards. Maybe not 2,500 yards, [because] that's a big number, but a lot."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.