Norm Johnson: Mr. Automatic Looks Back, Pt. 1

Few would have expected to find the name of an undrafted, unheralded kicker so high on the NFL's all-time scoring list. But Norm Johnson, who spent half of his 18-year career with the Seattle Seahawks, has put more points on the board than all but four kickers. In an exclusive interview with Seahawks.NET, Johnson talks about almost two decades in pro football, and the great life he has now.

Those more recent converts to professional football as it's played in Seattle will likely regard Josh Brown as the Seahawks' ultimate kicker. And there's no doubt that the "Vinatieri of the Left Coast" (as he was dubbed by yours truly in Pro Football Prospectus 2007) will always be remembered for his clutch kicks and reliability - especially in 2006, when he booted four game-winning field goals and saved the team's season.

But with the aid of historical perspective, it's clear that when it comes to Seahawks kickers. Mr. Brown will have to go a long way to equal the accomplishments of Norm Johnson. Seattle's kicker from 1982 through the 1990 season, Johnson had a ride in Seattle that coincided with the first great era of Seahawks football. He saw it all - from the last gasps of the Patera era, through Mike McCormack's brief tenure as coach, to the hire of Chuck Knox and the near-Super Bowl seasons, through the Behring purchase and the franchise's eventual downfall.

By the time the Behring machine had almost exported the Seahawks to Southern California, Johnson was long gone, and his second acts with Atlanta and Pittsburgh were, in some ways, even more fulfilling than his time in Seattle. They say that home is where the heart is, though, and Johnson returned to the Emerald City after his playing days were over to build his business and charitable concerns. A successful real estate agent and a pointman for the Boys and Girls clubs in Kitsap County, Johnson's new life and happy family prove that not only is there life after football, but that satisfaction can be found in all sorts of ways.

Johnson isn't a Seattle native - he was born in Garden Grove, California on May 31, 1960. Dad Howard was a football coach, and young Norm became involved in athletics very early on. “It was pretty sunny, and everything was outdoors, and we were less distracted with technology that we are today," Johnson recalled. "I played all kinds of sports growing up. I got my first interest in football from my dad (Howard), who was quite successful at Corona Del Mar High School and Morningside High School in Inglewood. I only played one or two years of Pop Warner, but I was big enough that - they went by weight down there – I was always put with kids who were a year or two older than me. I think I was too young, and not ready, and I just didn’t enjoy it. Through junior high, we didn’t have any pads or anything when we played football – we played flag football, and it wasn’t until ninth grade that I really put the pads on and began playing contact football.

"I played a lot of soccer, so when we put the pads on, I wanted to do a lot of punting and kicking. I didn’t get much competition, and I was pretty good – well, quite good, I guess, for that age – and just kept kicking and playing football. I played everything else, too – basketball and baseball – and I would just go from one sport to the next."

Football was the priority by the time he went to UCLA in in the late 1970s. "Well, my dad went to school at UCLA," Johnson said when asked why he chose the Bruins. "He went to both UCLA and UC Santa Barbara. Santa Barbara no longer has a football program, but he is in the Hall of Fame for football there. I was reasonably well-recruited, but I didn’t know where I wanted to go. Oregon and Colorado were interested in me. At the end of the recruiting process, UCLA became interested in me, and that’s where my focus was – the place I wanted to go."

Johnson enjoyed his time at UCLA and recalled one humorous memory. "We used to wear those cut-off jerseys on hot days – they don’t do that much anymore. Freeman McNeil used to wear those all the time, and he was our running back. He was running down the sideline in one game, and somebody grabbed his jockstrap. That’s all the defender had to hang on to. The jockstrap broke, but it unraveled, and Freeman ran for a 70-yard touchdown with a 70-yard streamer of unraveling jockstrap behind him. Something that stands out in my mind that was pretty darned funny."

Less entertaining for Johnson was his undrafted status after he graduated. Several NFL teams expressed an interest, but as Johnson said, the scouting then wasn't what it is now. "We had Combines in those days, though I was never invited to one," he said. "I’m sure it’s more technical and scientific now. They were timing people and measuring the strength back then, but I’m sure they’ve taken it to a new level.

"I actually had seven teams after the draft that were interested, and I remember wondering of I was going to be drafted – I would get calls (from teams) saying, 'Hey, were thinking of taking you in the sixth round, would you be interested in playing for Detroit?' I can’t remember all the teams,. Or, they would say, 'Would you mind being signed as a free agent?' By that time, I was more interested in signing as a free agent – was encouraging people not to draft me, because the, you don’t have a choice. And I knew by the end of the first day that there was some interest out there, and I'd be better off with some flexibility in my choices. Although, as an undrafted free agent, you have limited flexibility – but it worked out well in my case. I actually had a few teams vying for me, and it turned out to be a pretty good situation."

A good situation indeed, but there would be bumps before things straightened out. Johnson signed with the Seahawks in 1982, which would be McCormack's first year as Director of Football Operations, and Patera's last year as coach. There was also the small matter of a 57-day players strike, which ran from September 21. The Seahawks came back from the strike with a new interim coach and a bright future. For Johnson, it was "a whirlwind. As a rookie, boy – you’re just wide-eyed and you don’t know what to expect."

He did have fond memories of his first NFL coach, though. "I have to give Jack Patera a lot of credit. He stuck with me when I was a rookie, and gave me my first job. I wasn’t fortunate to play for him very long, and I had been looking forward to that, because he liked doing a lot of things with his special teams. He lasted three games until that strike, and there was no more Patera.

"The thing that I remember – in college, I played for Terry Donahue. Well, with all the coaches, you’d call them, 'Coach'. It was 'Coach Donahue', or 'Coach Kay', or whatever. So I remember passing Jack Patera in the hallway and saying, “Hey, Coach”, and he’d say, “Hi, player” (laughs). I know that he knew my name, but he wanted to be called by his first name, which … coming out of college and high school, you would never think about calling your coach by his first name! The pros were a bit different."

DENVER - SEPTEMBER 23: Place kicker Norm Johnson #9 of the Seattle Seahawks kicks the ball against the Denver Broncos during the NFL game at Mile High Stadium on November 23, 2003 in Denver, Colorado. The Broncos defeated the Seahawks 34-31. (Photo by Mike Powell/Getty Images)

A more traditional and hard-nosed approach began in Seattle on January 26, 1983, when Chuck Knox was named Seattle's head coach. A mere expansion team with a few good moments until Knox' hire, the Seahawks were about to go on a two-year journey that few could have expected. However, Johnson said that he sensed something different in the air from the start of Knox's tenure. "I remember a lot of excitement back then," he said. "Bringing in Chuck Knox and his reputation for winning and such – there was a lot of excitement. It was still early in my career – ’83 was only my second season – and I was still a young buck. I just remember a lot of energy. We had a high draft pick, and we were able to get Curt Warner, who I had a lot of respect for having watched him in college … just a lot of excitement.

"I think we probably played above our heads at times back then, because we had the belief that we could do it. We did a lot with guys where you would say – hey, compare them to other players. Not so much Curt, but when Curt went down, people would expect our season to be over. But we had guys like Dan Doornink come in and make a lot of great plays. People like that, where you’d say, “How would you rate him in the NFL as far as running backs?” and I think people would rate him pretty low, but man – he really worked for us. There were a lot of players who really shined for us who weren’t the “superstars”. Dave Kreig was a new, undrafted, untouted quarterback. That’s what I remember. We went a long way on guts and emotion and belief."

Indeed they did - the 1983 Seahawks, behind Warner's 1,774 total yards, Krieg's efficiency and a defense that wouldn't quit, put together a 9-7 record and saved the best for the postseason. Beating the Broncos in the Wild Card round and the Dolphins in the Divisional frame, the Seahawks were only an AFC Championship meltdown against the eventual Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Raiders away from their own shot at the big brass ring. 1984 was even better, as Seattle overcame the opening-day loss of Warner and put up a 12-4 record despite a "leading rusher" (David Hughes) who gained 327 total yards on the ground. The '84 squad was probably the best Seahawks team until the 2005 Super Bowl version. Defense and special teams ruled the day - the Seahawks led the NFL in interceptions with 38, put four defensive Pro Bowlers in Hawaii, and Norm Johnson had his first great season, hitting 20 of 24 field goals. After getting Wild Card revenge against the Raiders, Seattle lost to the Dolphins and trundled forward to a very long postseason drought. Still, Johnson couldn't forget those halcyon days.

"(Knox) brought in some of his old veterans (from the Rams) and really changed the chemistry – I think that all worked," he said. "Chuck knew what he was doing, and the players saw that and bought into it. Whether it was true or not, they bought into the belief that they could win, and looking back, it was true. Chuck knew where we stood physically or talent-wise in the league, but he also knew that teams could play above their heads and win if they believed. He know how to being that out in his players – at least in the beginning."

But from 1985 through the end of the decade, the Seahawks put together a 52-43 record, missed the postseason entirely in their next best season (10-6 in 1986), lost playoff games in 1987 and 1988, and fell into a start-stop mediocrity in which Knox's focus on fundamentals was derisively deemed "Ground Chuck". In August of 1988, Behring completed the purchase of the team, and the roll stopped soon after. The Seahawks were eliminated from the playoffs in the last game of the 1988 season, and Tom Flores was named the team's general manager soon after. More and more, Johnson recalled, Knox lost control of the team he was coaching.

Did Knox take heat for decisions in which he wasn't involved? "You know … (pauses) … I’ve often wondered that," he said. "Not the heat part, but I’ve often wondered how much control he lost when Behring and Tom Flores came in. For example, I left and it wasn’t long after that Chuck left. We were in the same conference – I went to Atlanta and was really successful and he went to the Rams. We’d end up talking before games, and he’d say that he didn’t want to draft (John) Kasay, and he wanted to keep me, but it wasn’t his choice. I guess I have no reason not to believe, I guess there’s no reason he’d tell me that (if it wasn’t true). I don’t know, but I think there was a good chance that he lost some control. And that might have been why he left,

As for Behring, Johnson was succinct in his evaluation of where the blame really belonged. "He just dismantled that team," Johnson said. "And instead of keeping well-liked players, or keeping the excitement going, he brought in his bean-counters and cut costs. I think that showed on the field, and I think that showed in the support he got from the community, and when you start losing support in your community, things just start spiraling downhill. The negative press – I think everything contributed to having poor seasons."

As Johnson intimated, the end was near for the kicker and his coach in Seattle. Knox signed a two-year extension before the 1991 season, but he and the team agreed to end his time with the franchise after that final 7-9 season. Oddly enough, it was the '91 draft that told both men they would be gone. For Knox, it was the disastrous decision to select San Diego State quarterback Dan McGwire in the first round. For Johnson, it was the fourth-round selection of Georgia kicker John Kasay.

The writing was on the wall, but as Johnson remembers, the way the Seahawks went about ending his time with them was far less than truthful. There was an alleged training camp battle between the two kickers, and Flores released Johnson right before final cuts. Johnson had to sit for three weeks, wondering if his career was over, before the Atlanta Falcons came calling.

"I felt that I did a lot for the Seahawks," Johnson said, when asked why he wasn't treated fairly. "Never did anything to make them look bad, and I bled green and blue for a long time. But when they drafted Kasay, it was obvious that I wasn’t going to be on the team. No matter how well I kicked, and that was the best training camp I can remember. The bad thing for the Seahawks was that Kasay and I became good friends, so I knew what they were saying to him. But they would be talking to me – basically lying to me – and I knew what was going on. I did not appreciate being lied to.

"During that training camp, when I was kicking very well, there were other teams interested – one of them was Houston – and Jack Pardee, the Oilers’ coach back then, was talking about me. But the Seahawks kept me around in case John got hurt in training camp. He didn’t get hurt, and at the last minute … the problem is that in the NFL, especially for kickers, there are inly so many spots open. Well, a team wants you in their corral in training camp. They’re reluctant to make a trade, or release somebody and bring somebody else in cold, right before the season starts and after the last cut. So, was trying to get released the entire time I was in training camp, and they kept saying, “Oh, no – it’s a race,” and, “It’s a competition” and this and that, and I knew that they were jerking me around. Because I knew stuff behind the scenes. I found out after the fact that they actually said that they were keeping me around as an insurance policy, and I didn’t feel that I deserved to be treated that way.

"So when they cut me at the last minute – five minutes before the dadline after they couldn’t trade me, teams pretty much had their final season rosters. Now, you’ve got to sit out and wait for a space to open. And my thought on that was, here was a guy that played for your team for nine years, and he should be shown a little bit of respect. When there are people out there that are interested in him, and he can go on and continue playing and being treated fairly by being released early – I had seen teams do that for players they respected. They didn’t do that for me, and I didn’t think that was fair.

"I wanted to go to Houston in the worst way because I knew I wasn’t going to be here, and I knew that they needed a kicker. Warren Moon was there, and they were talking line it was their best chance to get to a Super Bowl. They were another dome team, and they were going places. So I said “Hey guys, let me go I’ve got a place to go – you drafted Kasay, that’s fine Just let me go. I agree that he’s a good kicker, just treat me fairly and let me move on.” By the time they did release me, Houston had signed Al Del Greco (Ed. Note: Al Del Greco and Ian Howfield kicked for the Oilers in 1991), so I had to sit out weeks that year, and I just didn’t think that was right.

"I can also see it from a team standpoint, but I think there’s a time and place to show some fairness to the individual. Looking back on it, I was glad to land (with the) Falcons. We had a lot of fun, and it kind of re-energized my career."

After nine years, Norm Johnson's NFL journey had just begun.


Stay tuned later this week for the conclusion of our story, when Norm Johnson talks about the second half of his NFL career, the remarkable Jerry Glanville, his trip to the Super Bowl, and how he found that when it comes to Seattle, you really can go home again.

Thanks to Mark Olsen for his assistance.

Doug Farrar is the Editor-in-Chief of Seahawks.NET, a staff writer for Football Outsiders, and a contributing author to Pro Football Prospectus 2007. Feel free to e-mail him here.


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