There is not much room for sentimentality in the game of football. It is a brutal game on the field and a ruthless one off it — a cutthroat business through and through.
Yet some players spend so much time in one city and are such a positive presence in the locker room that it’s hard to imagine them playing anywhere else.
Derrick Johnson, the longest-tenured Chief, certainly appears to fit that bill.
“He doesn’t get the recognition most of the other guys do,” said outside linebacker Tamba Hali, who has been a teammate of Johnson for the last 10 seasons. “But as far as this city goes? All-time great.”
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To his credit, Chiefs general manager John Dorsey seems to understand that. While addressing reporters last week at the NFL Combine, Dorsey noted that the Chiefs have had consistent contact with Johnson’s representative since the end of the season and will continue to work toward a deal.
“We are going to move this thing forward,” Dorsey said. “Anytime you become the all-time leading tackler for the Chiefs … we’re not going to let good football players go in this thing.”
Which makes sense, because Johnson — who turns 34 in November — proved to have plenty of juice left in the tank.
After missing 15 games in 2014 because of a ruptured Achilles, Johnson bounced back in a big way last season, recording 116 tackles, four sacks and two interceptions in 16 games while breaking Gary Spani’s all-time club tackle record, which stood for 36 years.
Still, the stat that is perhaps most indicative of Johnson’s positive presence is a team one. With Johnson — who was chosen one of the Chiefs’ two defensive team captains, along with emotional leader Eric Berry — back on the field, the Chiefs improved from 28th in rushing defense in 2014 to eighth last year.
Johnson simply found ways to win in the running game, even at age 33. The first is with his brain, as younger teammates repeatedly cited his uncanny ability to predict opponents’ plays seconds before they happen.
“That’s when you make plays, when you anticipate certain things (that are) coming,” Johnson explained. “Your preparation throughout the week lets you know what play is going to come, and throughout the years, playing football, certain things come up, and you say, ‘OK, this is probably going to happen, so let me lean over here a little bit more.’ ”
But it’s Johnson’s ability to not only see the play but make the play that is truly impressive. He is listed at 6 feet 3 and 242 pounds, but in recent years he has remained spry by keeping his weight in the 230-pound range. This has allowed him to maintain his superior speed and quickness, which allows him to squirt under and around blockers to rack up tackles.
“He’s got a unique ability to —like I call it — dart,” defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said. “He can go inside and outside of blocks and ... for the most part, he’s right when he does it. Not everybody has that permission. You’ve got to know yourself and know what you can do, and he’s got that.”
Yet it’s now up to the Chiefs to decide what they are willing to do to keep him around. Johnson is set to enter his 12th season, and he has mentioned in the past that he has no intention of retiring anytime soon. He also mentioned after last season that he was a “Chief at heart” and would like to return.
Teams, however, rarely elect to pay older inside linebackers in free agency, simply because they don’t view it as a premium position. That’s why Hall of Fame general manager Bill Polian, speaking generally, says there are many factors that go into the decision to pay an older inside linebacker.
“Well, Number 1, remember that father time is undefeated,” Polian said. “Number 2, you (need to) have access to actuarial tables that tell you when players at certain positions begin to decline. And Number 3, if it’s your player, you have access to his medical data and conditioning and all that.
“So you factor all of that in, and then you try — if you really want the player — to craft a contract that makes sense for you and for the player.”
Salary-cap expert and former agent Joel Corry says a good free-agent comparison for Johnson might be Browns inside linebacker Karlos Dansby, who was 32 when he signed a $24 million deal over four years with $12 million guaranteed in 2014.
Corry added that someone like the Jets’ David Harris, who was 31 when he signed a three-year deal for $21.5 million with $15 million guaranteed in 2015, might also be on the high side of that comparison.
But ESPN analyst Louis Riddick — who was Chiefs coach Andy Reid’s director of pro personnel in Philadelphia from 2010 to 2013 — says that sometimes it’s OK to pay older inside linebackers that much, especially when you know exactly what you’re getting.
“When you’re talking about the signal-caller positions, those are the positions that you will make age allowances for — whether it be safety, and middle linebacker, in particular,” Riddick said.
For instance, when Riddick was a safety with the Browns in 1993, they brought in 29-year-old Pepper Johnson, an eight-year pro, to stabilize their 3-4 defense. Johnson had played under Browns coach Bill Belichick in New York for several years, and Belichick knew the player well.
“Pepper wasn’t the same guy he was in New York, but the wisdom and the experience at that position really exceeds a lot of things that physically they can’t do anymore,” Riddick said. “That’s very, very, very important, and you can never underestimate that, especially if he’s a good influence on the rest of the younger guys. … If he can still play and not get (you) burned, you try to find a way and value him.”
Considering that Johnson is a team icon, a future Chiefs Ring of Honor member and, most importantly, still a very good player, Johnson would seem to fit that criteria.
The trick, as always, is agreeing on the money.
“You look at the free-agency board as it unfolds, and you look at the character of the man,” Dorsey said when asked about Johnson at the combine. “Is he the type of guy you want in your locker room? Is he a man of character? Which we all know he is.
“You know … I will do everything within my power to try to do something with him.”