He's a Keeper

Jeff Schudel looks at Kevin Johnson's tenure as a Cleveland Browns, amidst all the trade rumors which swirled in 2001.

Kevin Johnson has had a buff's-eye on his chest for about eight months, now. During the season he hasn't only been Tim Couch's favorite target, he has been practically Couch's only target to play well consistently.

For months, the third-year wide receiver had been rumored to be going to more places than a Continental pilot. The Browns weren't shopping him, but at least three teams showed interest.

In the weeks leading up to the draft, the story was the Eagles wanted to reunite him with his quarterback at Syracuse University, Donovan McNabb.

Midway through training camp the Saints called the Browns about Johnson because their star receiver, Joe Horn, was slow recovering from an injury.

Then in mid-September, the Chiefs called and offered a fifth-round draft choice. The Browns, trying to stockpile draft picks for Coach Butch Davis, said a fifth wasn't enough.

"I think whatever is in the best interest of the Browns should be done," Couch said when the Chiefs wanted Johnson after one game. "And in my opinion what's best for the Browns is keeping K .J. right here. He's going to have a breakout year in this offense."

Johnson knew he could finally relax when the Oct. 23 National Football League trading deadline passed and he saw his nameplate still above his stall in the Browns locker room.

Maybe Couch can get a side job as a carnival fortuneteller. Heading into the final games of the season, Johnson had 65 catches for 893 yards and eight touchdowns. He is on pace for career highs in all three categories.

"You look at my stats from the first two years, and you wonder why they would think about trading me," said Johnson. "It was kind of surprising, but it makes you realize it's a business. That was my first exposure to the business part of it.

"Tim didn't have a clue either what was going on. He told me 'Go out and do what you can do and let your game speak for itself.' "

Johnson caught 66 passes for 986 yards and eight touchdowns as a rookie in 1999. His numbers fell in 2000 to 57 catches, 669 yards and no touchdowns.

Chiefs coach Dick Vermeil deduced that Johnson wasn't playing up to his potential, which is why Vermeil wanted Johnson at a bargain price. But Davis could see what happened; Couch missed the final nine games with a fractured thumb. The quarterbacks that followed, Doug Pederson and Spergon Wynn, didn't have the same chemistry with K.J., nor with anyone else, for that matter.

"Kevin has the best hands on the team," Davis said.

Former coach Chris Palmer rode Johnson hard the first two years because he wanted to make sure Johnson got the most out his skills. Johnson, 5-11, 195 pounds, is not the fastest player on the roster, but he runs routes smoothly and is an excellent leaper with superb concentration. He showed those skills in New Orleans in 1999 when his catch of a tipped ball in the end zone gave the Browns their first victory.

Now, says Johnson, wide receiver coach Terry Robiskie has made him a complete player.

"He's done a lot of fundamental work with me, helping me get in and out of my routes better," Johnson said. "Him working with me has made me a better player. It's a shame Washington didn't keep him as their head coach.

"He tells you how to win. I think that's the best thing that's happened to me this year. Terry understands me as a player first. He knows what I can and can't do. For the first couple years, I was always short on deep balls. He taught me when to turn my head and how to body defenders up and run through the ball at times.

"1 had a bad habit of turning back, looking too early on deep balls. He's worked with me a lot on that."

Johnson has had his success without a solid No. 2 receiver on the other side. JaJuan Dawson is second among receivers with 12 catches. Rookie Quincy Morg,an also has a dozen catches.

"Guys are working hard," Johnson said. "Quincy is making plays. Dennis Northcutt had to come back from his (clavicle) injury. JaJuan has made big catches. Collectively as a group, everyone is doing their job."

Johnson said he considered himself the leader of the Browns receivers the first day he was drafted, even though a veteran, Leslie Shepherd, was on his team.

This story was originally published in Bernies Insiders Magazine on December 24, 2001

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