Around the NFL, the New England Patriots are widely considered the ideal franchise. They are a team built on a foundation of principles that act as a guideline in all aspects of the organization, be it personnel, coaching, or execution. Year after year, the qualities and characteristics that the Patriots emphasize produce a Super Bowl caliber team that, week in and week out, finds a way to win.
It is not difficult to recognize certain key players on the team that seem to each personify these principles.
Tom Brady embodies a humble but unwavering confidence that resonates through the entire roster, a steadiness and reliability that makes no comeback seem impossible, no lead insurmountable.
Corey Dillon is a prime example of the effect a "team" mentality can have on a player who was previously considered to be a "problem" guy.
Rodney Harrison is a model of Patriot toughness.
Teddy Bruschi is an embodiment of the blue collar mentality and typifies the sports definition of "heart."
Mike Vrabel is a representation of football smarts augmenting natural ability and talent.
Troy Brown has become synonymous with selflessness and versatility.
These players are part of a class of "classic Patriots", and it is by their contributions, their attitudes, their character that the Patriot machine is fueled.
Another member of this class is the recently – departed Ted Johnson. Although it can be said that Ted Johnson possesses many, if not all of the traits outlined above, it is clear that the most prominent of the traits he possesses is yet another principle that the Patriots have come to embody; the ability to overcome adversity. 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.
A true middle linebacker, Johnson's fearlessness and physical abandonment was unmatched by anyone else who played on this defense during his tenure. A natural run stuffer, Johnson's main skill was his ability to create collision. He met every instance of contact without the least bit of hesitance or regard for his physical well being. This aptitude for and willingness to make big hits at the line of scrimmage became his most valuable attribute as well as the key to his downfall. There is little doubt that Johnson's ferocious and aggressive playing style greatly contributed to the concussion problems that forced his early retirement.
Drafted by the Patriots in 1995 in the second round, Johnson 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.
His success continued into the following season, as Johnson's 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.
Unfortunately for Johnson and the Patriots, this kind of injury would come to typify the kind of frustrating, freak injuries that would haunt Johnson for a large chunk of 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." 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. 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.
In 2004, Johnson won his 3rd Super Bowl as a New England Patriot. This capped off yet another comeback season in which Johnson played in all 16 games season and started in 15 of them. He was third leading tackler on one of the best defenses in the league, and once again became a vital contributor of the New England Patriots.
Because of the adversity Johnson faced and the manner in which he overcame it, Johnson leaves this franchise as one of the most respected players to wear a Patriots jersey in the past decade. He stayed with the Patriots when more money and additional playing time beckoned him elsewhere. He accepted the instability of his role with the Patriots, being bounced around from team captain to backup, and back again. He did all of this with the utmost professionalism and the respect for the game and his team; something that is sorely lacking in many of the locker rooms of today's NFL.
Regardless of who the wins the right to fill Ted Johnson's position, it is certain that he will have a hard time filling his shoes. And while some may consider Johnson's early and sudden retirement from sports to be lamented, this much is certain: Ted Johnson can walk away from the game holding his head up high, knowing that in the face of a seemingly endless hardship and adversity, he prevailed while remaining a consummate professional, a true football player, and, perhaps above all else, a classic Patriot.