Late Thursday night, long after the Chiefs’ critical-but-bittersweet 21-13 win over the Oakland Raiders, coach Andy Reid dialed up his star inside linebacker, Derrick Johnson.
Johnson, who suffered a season-ending left Achilles’ tear in the second quarter of the victory, had left Arrowhead Stadium quickly on Thursday night, and Reid had not had a chance to speak with him yet but was intent on offering a few important words.
“You can start working on coaching now,” Reid told him. “You get a chance to sit back and see it from that side.”
That’s not to say Reid was trying to push Johnson, 34, into retirement or anything. Far from it; Johnson wouldn’t have that anyway. He’s already decided that he intends to make another comeback, just two years after he overcame a torn Achilles to his other leg – “I have two more years on my deal and I intend to finish them out strong,” Johnson told The Star.
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But Reid just knows that Johnson, one of the team’s most productive players and most respected leaders, will still be needed to play a critical role down the stretch, primarily as a mentor for his young understudies, who now find themselves on the hot seat.
“I want him around here — I don’t want him going anywhere,” Reid said of Johnson, who signed a three-year, $21 million deal this offseason. “I want him to hang around, do his rehab and get himself back to where he can play. But in the meantime, he can work on a little coaching there with some of our young guys.”
It’s a challenge Johnson has accepted.
“I will help the young guys go get us this ring,” he said.
Johnson’s backups on the 53-man roster include second-year pros Ramik Wilson and D.J. Alexander, along with a rookie in Terrence Smith. All have had incredibly positive things to say about Johnson, both as a player and leader.
“Seeing Derrick go down, it’s heartbreaking,” Alexander said. “He’s a great guy ... I don’t want that to happen to anybody, a guy like Derrick, he’s a tremendous leader that we look up to.”
Part of the reason for that is the way Johnson prepares, Reid said. Given the enthusiastic way Johnson practices, there’s no doubt how much he loves football, a trait he shares with the Chiefs’ other primary defensive leader, safety Eric Berry.
“You’d think he was 20 years old,” Reid said of Johnson. “That’s how he goes about his business. I mean, it’s incredible. He loves, loves, loves to play the game.”
And now, the Chiefs are stuck in the unenviable position of trying to replace a player who entered the game with 30 more tackles (89) than their next closest player. And to do so, the Chiefs will be forced to look both inside the organization and out for linebacker help.
Following the game, Reid said one of two starting inside linebackers who are currently on injured reserve — Josh Mauga and Justin March-Lillard — could potentially be brought off IR, as NFL rules allow.
But on Friday, he clarified that Mauga — who had a labral tear in his hip — is not eligible for that; only March-Lillard, who has a broken left hand.
And if the Chiefs were to bring March-Lillard back, it would stop them from bringing back another potentially crucial player for the stretch run, since teams can only use the provision once a season, like, say, star running back Jamaal Charles.
“I haven’t even got that far,” Reid said. “I honestly haven’t thought about that or gone there.”
The means the first man up right now is Wilson, who has come a long way in a four short months. Wilson, a fourth-round pick a year ago, was released by the Chiefs right before the season, only to go unclaimed and sign to the Chiefs’ practice squad.
He was eventually recalled to the 53-man roster in mid-October, when March-Lillard hurt his hand. He’s run with the opportunity since then; in eight games as the starter next to Johnson in the Chiefs’ 3-4 base, he’s racked up 50 tackles, two pass deflections and an interception, all while showing much more decisiveness and physicality against the run.
The 6-foot-2, 237-pound Wilson even took the “green dot” helmet — the sole defensive helmet fitted with a radio to communicate with the sideline —when Johnson left the game Thursday.
“Ramik has played good football for us,” Reid said. “We’ve asked him to do quite a bit, and I think he’s done a respectable job there.”
In the Chiefs’ nickel and dime subpackages, third-year pro Daniel Sorensen — a 6-foot-2, 220-pound safety — has lined up as linebacker next to Johnson.
Sorensen has been supremely productive, racking up 52 tackles and two interceptions, but his role, it appears, won’t shift to one of an every-down linebacker going forward.
“He would need to eat a little bit, I think, because he’s not real big,” Reid said. “To ask him to get into there, like what you saw yesterday — with an extra o-lineman and all those things — that might be asking a lot.”
Alexander, a 6-foot-2, 233-pound special-teams player, has taken Johnson’s place in the few snaps he’s missed so far this season. He is supremely athletic for the position but is still developing his eyes, though he’s made a play or two in the six defensive snaps he’s received this year.
“He jumped in there and got a couple good snaps in, so he’s definitely an option there,” Reid said. “He made a couple tackles in there, so for the most, he did OK.”
Smith, 6-foot-2, 235-pound undrafted rookie from Florida State, is another athletic special-teamer who has not logged a defensive snap this season. But Reid was complimentary of his progress.
“He’s a smart kid,” Reid said. “He would also be an option.”
Reid said steady veteran outside linebacker Frank Zombo, a 6-foot-3, 254-pounder who has played some inside linebacker for the Chiefs in the past, could also be an option as general manager John Dorsey sets about fortifying a position that has certainly become less certain.
“He’s done that before,” Reid said. “He’s our emergency guy in there. He played there the last time this went down. That’s an option. We haven’t put anything in stone.”