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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.