PHOTO:Kansas City Chiefs tight end Tony Gonzalez (88) is tackled by New England Patriots defenders Ted Johnson (52) and Eugene Wilson (26) during the first half at Arrowhead Stadium Monday, Nov. 22, 2004, in Kansas City, Mo. Gonzalez gained 12 yards on the pass from Trent Green. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
Ted Johnson, Not taking it for granted
By Michael Reardon, Site Contributor
The New England Patriots is a franchise that has had a variety of colorful characters with compelling stories come and go in its recent history. The arrival and messy departure of Bill Parcells. The decline and departure of local icon and franchise quarterback Drew Bledsoe. The rapid rise to greatness of his replacement, a fourth string nobody named Tom Brady. The emergence of Bill Belichick as the most successful head coach in the NFL. The falling out with and release of a vocal team leader Lawyer Milloy. The turnaround story of the NFL, Corey Dillon, setting franchise records just one season removed from rotting away on the perennial non - competitive Cincinnati Bengals.
Without a doubt, being a Patriots fan and follower is seldom a dull endeavor.
These stories often dominate newspaper headlines and sports talk show phone calls. They also cover up other stories that, while they do not often attract the most attention, are no less incredible or deserving of praise.
One of these stories is that of insider linebacker Ted Johnson. Perhaps more than any other player on the New England roster, Johnson has come to intimate terms with success and glory as well as disappointment and uncertainty over his ten year career in the NFL. He's gone from starting middle linebacker and the team captain to a forgotten backup struggling for playing time. He has been hampered by bad luck and freak injuries throughout his career, and every return from the injured list has been met with continuing doubts of his durability, his effectiveness, and his aging body in what is known as a young man's game.
These trials and tribulations have taught provided Johnson with wisdom beyond his years, and he has learned to appreciate his career, one day at a time.
"I don't take it for granted, believe me," said Johnson in a 2004 interview, "If anybody knows, it's me. This can change in an instant."
Johnson was drafted by the Patriots in 1995 in the second round and enjoyed a successful rookie campaign, finishing 7th on the team in tackles (71) despite missing four games with a knee sprain. In his next two seasons, Johnson started 32 consecutive regular season games, every single playoff game, and his first Super Bowl. He lead the team in tackling for two years straight with 115 tackles in 1996 and 127 in 1997, and was named defensive captain in 1997.
It was during this time that Johnson developed into the type of NFL player he would be for his career. He was a solid, bruising linebacker whose attributes were best suited to stuffing the inside run. He had instincts and good vision and could read blocking schemes quickly; a talent that would only develop more as his career progressed. He had a tackler's mentality, and would rather meet a runner head on at the line of scrimmage than wrap up his legs on an outside run. His 1998 campaign was among the best on his team, as he had recorded 95 tackles in the first 13 games.
Then on December 26th Johnson suffered a season - ending pectoral tear while tackling Steelers running back Jerome Bettis.
This injury was the beginning of what would become a series of physical setbacks that Johnson would suffer throughout his career. In the next three seasons, Johnson would start just 21 of the 48 regular season games and experience varying success in the games he did play in. Most of the injuries were accidental ones and not because he was "injury - prone" or "brittle." The freak muscle tear Johnson experienced in 1998 would come to typify that kind of frustrating injuries that would befall him over the years. In 2000, Johnson gave back over $3 million in salary to remain with the Patriots despite is decreasing production and health problems.
In 2001, Johnson managed to avoid serious injury, but discovered that he'd been demoted to a backup player. During the Patriots Super Bowl season, Johnson played in 12 games but started only 5. He had been passed over on the depth chart and gone from a team captain to a role player.
Johnson took his diminished playing time with a level of maturity and professionalism that he is known around the locker room and organization for.
"There's been team success where I haven't had personal success and had to deal with that. Your ego is taking shots, you're dealing with a ton of things -- your identity, where you fit in, how can I contribute? You're a starter for most of your career, and then you're not."
Right after the Super Bowl, Johnson was left exposed to the expansion draft of the Houston Texans. Johnson could have taken this as a slap in the face and use it as an excuse to adopt a very negative attitude towards the ownership. Instead, Johnson attended the Super Bowl parade with the rest of his team. Of the 5 players left exposed to the draft, Johnson was the only player to attend the parade.
During the off - season, Johnson contemplated his options. He had the opportunity to play at Green Bay and get paid a contract that the Patriots probably wouldn't match. His current salary was $3.1 million and Johnson could had demanded that the Patriots pay him that contract and been released, free to take the job at Green Bay. However, because Johnson wanted to stay at New England, he decided to first have a conversation with coach Bill Belichick about what his role would be for the future. He was told that he would have a substantial role in the defense, albeit not a starting one. Johnson was willing to accept this, and not only did he stay with New England, but he agreed to take a pay cut from $3.1 million to $650, 000 to do so.
However, Johnson's expectations of playing time did not seem to be realized at the outset of the 2002 season. When the 45 - man active roster game out for the opening game in Pittsburgh, Johnson was shocked to see that he was left off of it. Angered, he walked out of practice and did not return nor answer phone calls for two days as he discussed the situation with his agent.
The role - reduction and the pay cuts, Johnson was willing to accept. However, he'd made his condition for a fair chance at playing time very clear, and when he was left off the active game roster, he felt that he'd been lied to.
"Things were said, and I believed them," said Johnson at the time, "I guess I'm old - fashioned like that."
For a few days, most doubted that Johnson would even return to the team. There seemed to be problems of every kind: playing time disagreements, contractual grievances, and a personal split between Belichick and Johnson himself. However, Johnson ultimately decided that returning to the Patriots was his best option, and he did so.
Not only did he return and play with the Patriots in 2002, he also did it in dramatically improved fashion. Johnson had his healthiest and most productive year since 1998, playing in 14 games and starting 11 of them. He finished second on the team with 96 tackles and was voted team captain, an honor he'd not had in years.
Heading into the 2003 season, Johnson looked poised to continue the success he'd had the year before. He was voted defensive team captain once again, and once again restructured his contract and took less money to say with the Patriots. However, on September 7th, Johnson's career hit yet another roadblock, as he suffered a broken foot in Buffalo that kept him out of pads for 8 weeks; half the regular season. Johnson returned in November, and although he was a contributing member of the linebacker rotation for the remainder of the regular season and the Super Bowl run, he was unable to regain the starting position he had earned back the season before.
Today, as his team enters its fourth Super Bowl during his tenure, 32-year old Johnson is in the midst of yet another comeback season. Johnson played in all 16 games this season and started 15 of them. He is third leading tackler on one of the best defenses in the league. He is once again a vital contributor of the New England defense, and a member of one of the most talented and versatile linebacker groups in the NFL. He is a veteran leader on a team that he loves, a team that he took multiple pay cuts to stay on, a team that is on its way to becoming one of the greatest of all - time.
And he is enjoying every minute of it.
"Football has been great to me. I've enjoyed the lessons. I've had some great highs and then I've gone very, very low."
Asked about his career - long battles with injuries, Johnson responded: "Self - doubt has certainly crept in too many times than I would have liked, but I had high aspirations for something more and it wasn't working out that way. There were several times when I wanted to walk away from the game and try something new, but ownership believed in me and were willing to work with me so it's certainly been a give and take."
In this age of sports superstars and prima-donnas, Johnson is a true example of a blue collar athlete and embodies the mentality of the New England Patriots as a whole. The characteristics he personifies, selflessness, hard work, and intelligence, are also words that analysts use to describe his entire team. And after a rollercoaster career of success and disappointment, Johnson will be heading into his fourth Super Bowl as a starter, as a leader, as a New England Patriot.
You can find more stories about Patriots players in the HOT NEWS section or in their player profiles.
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