Sam Mellinger

Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson is playing better than ever, and here’s why that’s remarkable

Derrick Johnson, who recently celebrated his 33rd birthday, is in the midst of a season made remarkable by the fact that he’s coming off a torn Achilles.
Derrick Johnson, who recently celebrated his 33rd birthday, is in the midst of a season made remarkable by the fact that he’s coming off a torn Achilles. deulitt@kcstar.com

A ruptured Achilles’ tendon means an All-Pro linebacker’s body is as useful on an NFL team as your neighbor’s. But the mind is a different thing entirely, so Derrick Johnson’s family grew used to a sort of a next-level broadcast during Chiefs games last year.

They met most Sundays at Johnson’s house in Austin, Texas, maintaining the tradition of a dozen or so gathering for Beverly Johnson’s famous breakfasts — pancakes, biscuits, omelettes, hash browns, fruit, bacon, you name it.

Once the game started, Johnson took his place on the couch and just could not help himself. The Achilles’ in his right leg ripped in the Chiefs’ season opener, and that kind of injury has killed many careers — careers of younger men, and of men who rely less on speed on quickness than Johnson.

He knew that, but he buried the scary facts under a carpet of positivity. During the week, it was non-stop workouts at the Total Athlete gym he runs with his brother Dwight. And on Sundays, it was watching his teammates, as involved in the game as a person can possibly be from his living room.

“That was hard,” Derrick said.

“Every game, at some point, it was, ‘Boy, I wish I could be out there,’ ” said Beverly, Derrick’s mother.

“He’s just so antsy,” Dwight said. “It was, ‘It’s a slant! It’s a slant!’ Or, ‘Cover 2! Get in Cover 2!’ He’s calling it out from the couch, because he knows the tendencies of all the teams.”

Johnson is back on the field now, which is significant on its own. A study released seven years ago — researchers are working on an update — found that at least half of the athletes who rupture their Achilles’ tendon never return to competition. It is, perhaps, the worst injury an athlete can suffer. The effects are worse for those who rely on speed, and worse still the older they are.

For Johnson, who turned 33 last month, the best outcome seemed to be a return with noticeably reduced effectiveness.

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Instead, he is playing every bit as well as he did before the injury. Perhaps better. He thinks he is faster than ever, and Chiefs coach Andy Reid said Johnson is as good or better than the year before he was hurt.

Johnson leads the Chiefs and entered this week’s games eighth in the NFL in tackles. Pro Football Focus rates Johnson as the second-best inside linebacker in the league this season, and the website’s metrics say he’s on pace for the best season of his career. It is hard to imagine the Chiefs carrying one of the league’s best defenses or a seven-game win streak into today’s game at Baltimore without Johnson’s remarkable recovery.

Eric Berry’s return from Hodgkin lymphoma is without peer in the NFL, but Johnson’s rebound from his own injury could be without precedent. Selene Parekh, an associate professor at Duke’s orthopedic surgery department, has done extensive research into Achilles’ injuries and says he does not know of an athlete Johnson’s age who has made such a full recovery.

“I don’t,” he said. “I can’t think of anyone. I’ll go back tonight and see if I’m just forgetting anyone, and if so, send you an email.”

He did not send an email.

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Physical recovery starts with the mind. This is how Johnson sees it, anyway. You cannot rehab an injury — heck, you can’t do anything worth doing, really — without first believing you can do it.

Sure, he knew the statistics. Knew that his might have been the worst possible injury for a 30-something linebacker who made his impact with speed and explosiveness. So he focused on the positives.

When he talked of the injury, he focused on the talent of his surgeon, the improving techniques of the surgery, the knowledge of the people guiding his rehab, and the resources available to him at his gym in Austin. Being able to measure progress and exchange motivation with Mike DeVito, the teammate who suffered the same injury in the same game, was a help.

Even when Johnson could barely walk — and when he says this, he hunches his back, and pantomimes an elderly man’s gait — he kept a strong mind and said, “Hey, I’m walking already!”

Instead of thinking about the statistics, he called or studied success stories like Robert Mathis and Terrell Suggs.

“You speak things into existence,” Dwight said. “What you put into life is what you get back. We believe that.”

Optimism can only go so far, though. At the beginning of the season, Johnson talked about being completely back to full strength. He said there was some fine-tuning to do — train your eyes, is his term — but that in practical and physical terms he was the same player from before.

He now sees that was more of him “speaking things into existence” than literal truth. At that point, the focus from the outside was primarily on the simple fact that he was returning (though, understandably, most of the “return” focus was on Berry) and that he began the season just 15 tackles short of the Chiefs’ all-time franchise record.

He passed Gary Spani’s mark in the third game of the season, a blowout loss at Green Bay, but needed another month before he felt right.

Because when Johnson is asked to be self-reflective about his season, he thinks of the Lions game in London as the turning point. Before that game, he made some big plays, but not enough. At least, not enough to his standards. He has always been an overachiever, a perfectionist, and to him, if he’s not making what he calls “impact” or “preventative” plays, well, you could anybody to merely fill a position.

But from the Lions game on, those important plays have become routine. He doesn’t list them, but if you go back and watch him in each of the Chiefs’ last six games you can see what he’s probably talking about.

Against Detroit, he showed blitz over the center, but then came around the outside on a stunt, perfectly timing his move to confuse the offensive line and sack Matthew Stafford unblocked.

At Denver, he made tackles on both sidelines, and timed and disguised another blitz perfectly to sack Peyton Manning.

At San Diego, he had perfect coverage on a well-run route and well-run throw to Ladarius Green, diving across the body and knocking the pass down.

Against Buffalo, he found himself isolated in coverage against LeSean McCoy in the end zone, a linebacker shadowing one of the game’s great playmakers and deflecting the pass to save a touchdown.

At Oakland, he made two drive-stalling plays on Latavious Murray in a row — swooshing around the linemen to stop a run for no gain, and, with David Carr calling out Johnson’s number before the snap, reading an underneath throw and making the tackle for no gain.

Against the Chargers, he dropped into coverage and killed the last drive before halftime by intercepting a deflected pass.

These are just moments — snippets from each game — but they are largely how Johnson judges his worth. For the most part, these are plays Johnson makes with his quick mind and quicker feet.

A hundred and fifty-one games have a way of giving a man an edge if his body can keep up, and to hear Johnson tell it, the reason his body is keeping up has only a little bit to do with the tackles record.

“I have a lot of things to get done,” he said.

The record is nice, just like another year at the Pro Bowl or being voted All-Pro would be nice. But that’s not why he came back. He has never been part of a playoff winner. Just three Wild Card Game losses in 11 seasons.

A year of rehab gives a man time to think, and Johnson is sure of two things: the Chiefs would have made the playoffs last year if he’d stayed healthy, and this is the best chance he’s had yet of postseason success.

“Yes, it is,” Johnson said. “It’s easy to say that right now with the momentum we have. But looking at the beginning of the year, I thought this was the best roster I’ve been on.”

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