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Kevin Johnson on Facing Middle Age

Aardvark examines Kevin Johnson's role in an emerging offense and wonders whether KJ will accept his role or... or... well, we don't even want to think about that. Opinionated as always, here's this weeks Aardvark!<BR><BR>Agree? Disagree? Talk to Aardvark in the <A HREF="">Fan Columnist forum</A>!

There was a great comic scene where a bunch of women friends are talking about the new girl in their office who is drop dead gorgeous, and built. I mean, to quote Firesign Theatre, "she had a balcony you could do Shakespeare from." These attributes were not lost on these women, especially one who was letting her stay at her apartment temporarily. "I saw her bra hanging up in the shower," says the one, turning to the most buxom one in this group, "and darlin', YOU are top dog NO MORE. I mean-- I could stick my head in one of those cups!"

KJ is top dog no more. Oh, he has those great hands, though the amazing catch has yet to make an appearance in his repetoire this fall, and he's even muffed a couple. But alas, he doesn't strike fear in an opponent's heart. Opponents may assign their top corner on him, not because he's our most dangerous receiver, but because their defense figures he's our most likely target. They may also be living in the past, which is just fine as far as Bruce Arians is concerned.

After driving most everyone crazy with our incessant preference for wr's in round 2, we can now see the fruits of our labor. Yea, we knew it all along. There was a method to our madness.... uh, yea, that's it. We have four fine receivers, with a 5th as a long term project who could develop into a real dark horse: the Fris.

Morgan was predictably inconsistent as a rookie, but is like an old truck engine that you've been working on in your spare time. You turn over the engine, and it sputters madly. But you make an adjustment or two, turn her over again, let the system cough up some dirt and dust, and it starts to run smoothly. It can still hit a clog and stall out, but turn her over again, give her some gas, and it cleans itself out.

In retrospect, Davis admitted that Morgan was rushed to service too quickly and suffered for it. Ironically, there's less pressure on Andre Davis to excel, yet he has shown a greater maturity and ability to hit the ground running. He may now be dealing with a nagging ankle and "hitting the wall," but you can see where he may have even more potential than Morgan.

And then out of left field came Dennis Northcutt, the man I once predicted in August 2000 would be better than KJ, and who made me eat my words for about 24 of the next 27 months. Northcutt never got untracked his rookie season, then had the Joe Charboneau Sophomore Jinx Year in Hell. I then had to argue to have the Browns even keep Northcutt around just to see if something was really there that we could salvage. Gary gets a lot of credit for sticking up for Northcutt in Pure Football when virtually no one else did. He did, as did I. God knows, just ask Soul Dawg (sfx: throat clearing).

At any rate, Northcutt has emerged as a bonafide playmaker, and our one consistent deep threat. When we now see Couch launch one, and the receiver has yet to come into camera view, who do we now assume is the likely recipient at the other end? It's Northcutt, and that seems odd given his size. When going up for the 40 yarder over the middle with a corner and safety, shouldn't Morgan or Andre be better suited for that? Has Cutt capitalized by playing against lesser defenders? Perhaps, but he's also beating lesser defenders as a starter should... like a rented mule. And defenses have to be learning that they can't continue with that course of action and not expect to pay for it.

With these three receivers showing some consistency and reliability to go with their big play potential, it's no wonder Andre King, has seen no action. Last year he served as a specialist. If we needed a 7 yard catch, and the defense was double teaming KJ, King was an option. Now he's exiled to the Island of Lost Special Teams, and will get on with his life's vocation next year when he turns (gulp!) 30. Time flies when you're havin' a good time... ridin' the bench.

And now we come to KJ. KJ was our Marvin Harrison. He wasn't just our go-to receiver, he was also our only legitimate option on offense. He was our #1, 2, and 3 receiver rolled into one. Now he's just another face in an emerging receiver corps. He has, by default, become our elder statesman, the guy with good hand who runs precise routes. Guys with lesser attributes are always the ones who run precise routes. They're also the ones who play "smart," and have a great work ethic.

KJ has evolved from Marvin Harrison into Brian Brennan. And when you think about it, that's a good thing. Our receivers are rounding into form, so not everything has to live or die with KJ or any other player for that matter. One has a bad week, another becomes the star. If someone goes down with an injury, it's just more reps for the others.

This is a long way from being the go-to guy. It's as if KJ is facing middle age, and that may be a tough role to him accept. It's like he turned 40 and realizes the women just don't give him the time of day. Or worse, it's like he turned 50 and is surprised that 20-something women are so friendly towards him. Then he discovers it's only because he's old enough that they no longer regard him as a legitimate sexual threat. KJ is like the guy who can't admit that he needs glasses, or must shop for the Real, Real Relaxed fit jeans. And KJ gripes to his friends "Ahh, the old lady is getting on me about my drinking. I don't drink too much. You and I have a couple of beers after work, but that's no big thing, right? Am I right? You bet your ass I'm right-- Yo, two more here!"

KJ has a choice. He can admit that the offense has now been spread around to exploit the talents of an emerging group of skill players. He can settle into a lower profile role where he can help win a championship. He can realize that he will have to work harder in order to retain a starting job.

Or he can whine about the small print on menus or complain to his buddies that coach has it in for him and that we'd be much better off if the right people were doing all the driving. He can convince himself that he could return to top dog status with another team, even if it means returning to the glory of having nine catches while his team loses 31-14. Trouble is nobody's sending out feelers, and the Browns know he's like a new car just ten minutes off the lot. He's used, and they'd never get back enough value in any trade scenario.

Will KJ grow old gracefully? We know he has the ego because wr's have big ones. It's in the Book of NFL Stereotypes. But can he realize that on a balanced team, it's unlikely anyone is going to rack up 80 passes and 1,200+ yards?

It's his choice. If he still feels he is the top dog, then someone is going to have to give him the news that someone else's balcony is a lot bigger than his, and he may have to do Shakespeare somewhere else. Is KJ a cancer? The answer is not now, not yet. KJ is coming to terms with his "middle age," his not being the offensive MVP, and so far he's not going gentle into that good night. Well, that's life in the NFL: just ask Chris Carter when Randy Moss came along, Jerry Rice vis a vis Terrell Owens, or Tim Brown with Jerry Rice. S**t happens, and KJ is going through that stage.

But if the rage continues, if KJ continues to corner teammates who can influence the offense with his sales pitch like Jack Lemmon trying to get primo leads from Kevin Spacey in GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS, then KJ will be poison.

And now to close with the Eric Severeid School of Extended Analogy.

Clubhouse cancers. I think this is what separates the more benign whiner from the malignant tumor (Arnold: "It is NOT a TOOMUH!!"): the whiner complains-- often publicly-- to the coaches or the press for a brief time. He's told to shut up and grow up, and ultimately realizes he has to accept his fate and move accordingly.

The cancer never sleeps. It complains to other players, insidiously behind closed doors. What KJ may have done is appear to be an early warning sign. What the coaching staff may have done is give him a pre-emptive dose of chemo to keep him from becoming another Carl Pickens or Darnay Scott. KJ can either accept his new, middle age status and go into remission... or return to spread his toxic "I'm the driver" tombs to anyone who will listen. In that case, our only real option is surgery. And if all we get from the biopsy is a 3rd or 4th round pick, Doctor Butch won't care. The cancer will have been removed.

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