Johnson, whom the Oakland Raiders drafted in the second round last season from Stanford, entered training camp figuring to compete for the starting job with re-acquired Roland Williams, third-year man Doug Jolley and 2004 seventh-round draft pick Courtney Anderson.
"I kind of saw myself coming in and competing for the starting job," Johnson said. "I never got the chance to play with the first string."
That did not seem unrealistic since Johnson played in all 16 games as a rookie, five in a starting assignment under then head coach Bill Callahan and his staff. Under current head coach Norv Turner and his staff, however, Johnson saw his status plummet to fourth on the depth chart in training camp and he has been there since that time. The Raiders have not made Johnson active for any of their three games and there's little reason to think he will be active for Sunday's road game against the Houston Texans.
"If the coach is going to play me, he's going to play me," Johnson said. "Me going up and asking questions and trying to debate my position hardly makes a difference. I've got to speak with my play and my actions on the field and try to impress upon the coaches that I'm ready if I get the opportunity."
Johnson claimed in training camp that he had fallen out of favor with the new coaching staff when he took a trip to China, a trip sponsored by Reebok and the NFL. At the time, the coaches expressed that they did not have a problem with Johnson making the trip but preferred he did not in order to get ready for the 2004 season. Turner, however, has consistently denied Johnson's assessment.
The Raiders re-acquired Williams, who played for them in 2001-2002, primarily because of his blocking prowess and the fact that Turner's offense was going to emphasize the power-running game. The perception is Johnson and Jolley come up short in those areas. Johnson, who left Stanford after his sophomore season, was a college wide receiver. Jolley was recruited by BYU as a quarterback. In addition, BYU rarely runs the ball, thus creating a situation where a tight end has little chance to improve his blocking skills.
With Anderson providing ample size at 6-foot-6, 270-pounds, Johnson became the odd man out. Johnson's blocking skills might need work but hardly any more than that of Jolley.
"Norv's scheme is really beneficial to the tight end," Johnson said. "It's definitely a scheme that needs a pass receiving tight end that can make plays. I really look at it as a positive. I like the whole staff. I think if given the opportunity I could flourish in the offense. Right now, I've just got to play my role."
In the meantime, that role is to keep working hard and hope that chance comes sooner and no later.
"I really take this whole situation as a challenge," Johnson said. "I'm going to make the defense better on the scout team. I have to get them ready for the tight ends they're going to face this week. You've got to find a way to motivate yourself. I'm pretty sure it will happen. I know I'm good enough to be out there and make plays."