"Well he did return an interception for 70 yards!" a hopeful fan surely must have declared. "This is his year!"
"No, it's not," the naysayer would have retorted. "You've been blabbering that ‘this is the year' stuff since they drafted him."
In the 2009 opening game against Baltimore –a 38-24 loss – Johnson recorded three tackles, the aforementioned interception, and deflected another pass from Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco. Things looked hopeful for Johnson to have a breakout year from start to finish. 2009 was surely going to be the year where he finally broke out into the NFL. Entering the final year of his rookie contract, it was hoped that the fifth time would be the charm for Johnson.
DJ's two touchdowns against Denver last year proved that he could be a dominating playmaker.
That wasn't necessarily the case. It wasn't until late in the season that Johnson truly emerged as the consistent starting linebacker Chiefs fans had prayed for him to become. He struggled to stay on the first team throughout most of the season, and things looked so bleak in that he would probably be on another team by midsummer.
The final game of the season, after all, was Johnson's shining moment. He returned both of his interceptions from Denver Broncos quarterback Kyle Orton for touchdowns and recorded six solo tackles. It could very well have been the final glimpse Chiefs fans would see of a talent which they never saw blossom, but also a talent that was still yearning to make one giant leap.
Against Denver, Johnson's single game effort was unheard of to Chiefs fans. It was unlike his previous 73 games he had played in a red and gold uniform. That game in early January was the beginning of something different for Johnson. He was flying at unseen altitudes in the Mile High city, only destined for new territory.
Then came the offseason, where Johnson was once again placed low on the depth chart below players who clearly showed less effort than him in 2009. He vehemently guaranteed that he would be a starting linebacker by training camp, but things didn't look like they would pan out that way. With a new regime almost certain of ridding the franchise of most players from the previous Vermeil/Edwards era, Johnson's future looked bleak at Arrowhead. The additions of former New England Patriots players Mike Vrabel and Corey Mays seemed to have whittled at the tree which Johnson was hoping to plant for the long term in Kansas City.
Throughout the summer it seemed as if Todd Haley had a found new guinea pig. Johnson was going to be tested by getting benched or placed low on the depth chart in order to get so mad that he would show his anger on the field. Chiefs fans saw it with Dwayne Bowe in 2009, and there's already ponderings that it's happening right now to Jamaal Charles in the 2010 regular season.
Based on his Monday night performance it appears that DJ has graduated from Todd Haley's dog house.
Johnson became Haley's little toy in which he could play with fire; Haley would start the fire within Johnson to make him so determined that he would play his heart out the minute he got the chance. It would make Johnson a true playmaker in not only his eyes, but also Chiefs fans' eyes. It would make the first round pick from Texas finally play like a first round pick, and possibly even a Pro Bowler.
Just before training camp and in the heart of organized team activities, Johnson made his intentions clear to us in the media.
"I'm on a mission; I want to start."
Johnson told me point blank that he was not bluffing.
There was plenty of talk about Johnson reportedly being offered up for a trade to other NFL teams, but that talk slowly dissipated. He worked hard enough to prove to Haley that he needed one last chance. Surely, Haley saw something in Johnson that made him think he deserved one last shot in a Chiefs uniform, whether it was his playmaking in late in the 2009 season, especially in Denver, or his gamesmanship throughout the offseason. Never once did Johnson demand a trade, but rather spoke quietly and politely about his intentions to not only stay in Kansas City for 2010, but beyond.
Johnson signed his restricted free agent tender in March, and it seemed that he was headed to St. Joe and likely going to enter the regular season with an arrowhead on the side of his helmet. Whether it was by default or if he was to serve as roster depth, Johnson was going to be in Kansas City for at least one more season. 2010 is the year in which he battles not only the naysayers in the Chiefs Kingdom and coaching staff, but also battles for his second long term contract in the NFL.
From his first practice in St. Joe, DJ made it clear he wanted to be a starter this season.
Justin Olson/Warpaint Illustrated.com
Enter Demorrio Williams, another Chiefs looking to find his way to stable ground on the depth chart. Williams himself had a solid few preseason games in August in which he escalated his training camp battle with Johnson one step further. Williams emerged as a formidable pass rusher with his three sacks in two preseason games against Philadelphia and Green Bay, and temporarily made Johnson a distinct afterthought. He seemed like he was the perfect compliment to fellow quarterback abuser Tamba Hali, and the perfect fit for Romeo Crennel's aggressive defense.
However, the Chiefs chose to go the route in which Johnson was the guy who would patrol the middle of the field, and not blitz the quarterback. Johnson works best staying in his zone and picking off passes or stopping runs up the gut rather than trying to rip the quarterback's head off. The thing between Williams and Johnson in the preseason was that Williams had the knack to go out of his way to hit the homerun while Johnson settled for the less glamorous plays.
Johnson's effort still bolstered his chances in impressing the coaches, no matter how spectacular they looked on game film. Maybe it was how Johnson conducted himself in interviews that convinced Haley that he was one of the right 53 players. Either way, Johnson impressed Haley, nonetheless.
Johnson spent a lot of times on the bench in 2009.
Johnson settled for the ugly plays in last Monday's game against San Diego. He recorded 11 solo tackles and one assisted tackle against the defending AFC West champions. In one game, he's already tallied a third of the amount of tackles which he recorded in the entire previous season. There was plenty of talk entering the game about the Chiefs' shaky defense and just as much talk about the Chargers' rookie running back Ryan Mathews.
"Oh, the Chargers are going to steamroll the Chiefs' defense," a casual Chiefs fan's subconscious momentarily pondered. "There's no way their linebackers will stop the gaps."
"Told you so," the stereotypical positive thinking Chiefs fan would mutter.
In my eyes, Johnson made the play of the game against the Chargers on Monday by forcing a fumble from running back Ryan Mathews that led the Chiefs to take a 14-7 lead. They never lost their lead in the game, especially when Johnson was protecting the end zone on the final play of the game.
That forced fumble justified Johnson's play from Denver in January and catapults him into his showcase season in Kansas City. It was a play in which he certainly lit the spark set inside by Haley in order to start a firestorm.
The Chiefs held Mathews to only 75 yards, and while it wasn't entirely Johnson who did all the work to stop him, he certainly made the biggest impression against Mathews. That play left the Chargers crippled for most of the game, and led the Chiefs to a shocking win on national television. The win was just as stunning as the one that the Chiefs recorded in January against the Denver Broncos, a team licking its chops in hopes of a playoff berth.
There has never been an issue about DJ's talent or athleticism.
It appears that Johnson has learned over the past few years to not lunge for the big plays every time he's on the field, but rather do what is necessary to win. He stayed silent while most Chiefs fans would've expected him to throw a fit. Johnson is one of "the right 53" players which Todd Haley had dreamed of, and it's all because of his little experiment on Johnson.
Big plays, such as his interceptions against Denver in 2009, just happened to come his way, but his 11 solo tackles against the Chargers were pure efforts of him going out of his way in order to help his team win. He showed plenty of heart in a game in which he desperately needed to show it, and that will surely continue for the foreseeable future.
He might not ever be as powerful a pass rusher as another Chiefs linebacker with the first name "Derrick", or as bruising a hitter as the great Willie Lanier, but he's slowly making a name for himself in 2010. Johnson is finally proving that he's a Chief.