Derrick Johnson doesn’t need this, these glorified practice plays, the ones that don’t count, where his 33-year-old body and surgically repaired Achilles’ tendon are out here for reps he’s seen thousands of times before and will be meaningful only if he messes up or worse.
But here he is, anyway. This is his job. And he is terrific at his job, in the plays that count, in large part because he’s terrific here, in the ones that don’t.
“I don’t want somebody to turn on the film and say, ‘Oh, he got done in on that play, who is that? Derrick Johnson?’ ” he says. “I have a high standard. My standard is higher than what the coaches expected of me.”
The Chiefs beat the Bears 23-7 in a preseason game on Saturday. Mostly, it was not particularly exciting, or interesting, beyond the way that everything involving football is exciting and interesting in America. Chris Jones was great. Alex Smith, too. Tyreek Hill made a nice play on an underthrown deep pass. All of this will be forgotten soon, the moment something else happens, and with Colin Kaepernick and Tony Romo making headlines, maybe that’s already happened.
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But if you were interested, Johnson put on something like a tutorial of professionalism in front of a half-full stadium.
“He’s a unique character,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid says. “You don’t come across a lot of guys like that.”
The image of crazy professionalism comes early, on the Bears’ third play from scrimmage. Jeremy Langford, one of the league’s toughest running backs, takes a toss to the left side. Johnson knows it’s coming, and zooms past the scrum at the line of scrimmage and inside the lead blocker.
It’s a beautiful ballet of speed, power, and brains, and his hands are on Langford 4 yards behind the line scrimmage, before the back takes a single step upfield. This play is dead. It’s all over except the tackle, but then a bizarre thing happens to the Chiefs’ all-time leading tackler. Langford’s right hand extends into Johnson’s face mask, driving the linebacker into the grass.
Should have been a loss. Bring on the punt team. Instead, Langford converts the first down. Johnson has made 990 tackles in his career. He has missed far fewer, but even now, with four Pro Bowls and millions of dollars and respect throughout the industry, one miss in a preseason game gnaws at his soul.
“That pissed me off,” he says. “Agh. As a linebacker, they do a toss play, and the hole opens up, that’s like heaven to me.”
Johnson’s teammates aren’t used to seeing this. A few of them, including Justin March, asked what the heck happened. Johnson, because he’s Johnson, was happy to answer. It was technique, basically. And discipline. He took eight steps toward Langford, but should’ve taken nine or ten. He left his feet too early, basically, diving at a physical player before he had the physical advantage.
But by the time Johnson had that conversation, it already took on a different tone, because two snaps after the whiff he got his revenge. The Bears gave it to Langford again, this time a handoff around the left end.
Johnson used that same blend of speed and brains — at this point in his career, he loses a few pounds each year to maintain his quickness — to beat the center to the point of attack, then weaved behind the pulling guard.
It was 11 steps to Langford, who again stuck his right hand toward Johnson’s face mask, except this time the linebacker stayed up, chopping down the stiff arm and driving five or six more steps into Langford until he was pinned between Johnson and the grass for a 1-yard loss. Johnson got up, screamed, and maybe even smiled back at Langford.
“That’s the pride I have when you strap up,” Johnson says. “Like, ‘Hey, can you beat me? No, you can’t beat me.’ It’s a pride deal. Being competitive. It’s fun, too. When you get beat, it’s not fun.”
Again, this is a preseason game. Against a bad team. At least two of the other three linebackers he was playing with on Saturday will not be on the field when the roster is full. Tamba Hali and Justin Houston, the star edge rushers, are recovering from knee injuries. Eric Berry, the franchise safety, is expected back on Sunday.
Johnson, as much as anyone the Chiefs employ, has nothing left to prove. His place in the franchise’s history, not to mention this particular season, is secure. Nobody would blame him for coasting through a preseason game, especially at his age, and without some of the star players he will depend on when the games matter.
But if anything, Johnson goes the other way. He was the one gathering the defense around him before the game, telling them this would be the last time they’d play much together before the regular season, and that they had yet to be effective. Preseason or not, full roster or not, those are the types of things that have to drive the men who make it this far.
Johnson has needed more of this than most. The Chiefs took him 15th overall in the 2005 draft, so long ago that Dick Vermeil was still the coach and Gunther Cunningham the defensive coordinator. Johnson was supposed to be a star right away, but it didn’t happen like that.
He began as an outside linebacker, and his career probably bottomed out when the Chiefs went 2-14 in 2008 and responded by cutting his playing time the next year. Johnson never complained, at least not to anyone in the building, learning a new position five years into his professional career.
He has made his place on the inside, in a position that modern football is in many ways moving away from. But Johnson has made himself essential to what the Chiefs do, particularly against the run. He is gifted physically, particularly with speed and quickness, but he’s football brilliant, knowing exactly where to be and when.
That’s how he’ll be remembered, too. He has an unrelenting energy and positive spirit. Reid says Johnson practices with the eagerness of a 20-year-old, but he has the mind of an 11-year veteran.
He has always loved football, but football has not always loved him back. He was a top linebacker prospect drafted to a franchise that at the time did not spend much time or energy on defense.
He played a full decade before winning a single playoff game, with two separate 2-14 seasons and subsequent rebuilds in between. His Achilles’ tendon ripped, robbing him of essentially an entire season, but he somehow came back even better. Doctors with experience in the procedure say his recovery may be unprecedented in terms of age, position, and effectiveness.
He is a maniacal worker, in other words, who could’ve tapped out of this brutal profession long ago. He is hopelessly committed to the cause, both personal and team, even here in a preseason game many have already forgotten about.
“They say real football players are kind of crazy,” Johnson says. “So, I have to have a little craziness.”
That’s cool and all, but the regular season starts in two weeks. He better save some of this for then.
“I did,” he says, smiling. “I’ve got a lot more.”