Solid middle management
LB Johnson has adapted to role
FOXBOROUGH -- It's not like the old days, when Ted Johnson would uncoil his body and send it shooting through the air like a projectile, smack into the chest of a running back with a force that would drop the poor soul like a dead weight dropping from the top of a skyscraper.
Back then, Johnson and Lawyer Milloy were 1 and 1A as the hardest hitters on the Patriots defense.
But Johnson also would snap tendons in his biceps with almost as much regularity as he leveled ballcarriers.
The ultimate best-of-times/worst-of-times player is now in a controlled, conservative scheme, with the roles precise and those reckless ways no longer needed.
"I played my position a little differently then," Johnson said. "I'm lucky because I think I can do some things. I've created a niche for myself. You have to be able to disengage and use good technique and make plays. That's what I think I do pretty well.
"I was [more reckless] because of the schemes at the time. It was simpler schematically where I could just go and I didn't have to think about things as much. Now you've really got to be thinking out there. `Where am I lined up on this play?' I've got to get my defense lined up and make the right call."
He was a ferocious middle linebacker who eventually wasn't able to stay on the field. He went from being an integral part of Bill Parcells and Pete Carroll defenses to going AWOL after learning that Bill Belichick had demoted him.
Now he is experiencing a renaissance in his career and his life, going from eligible bachelor to family man.
He has survived regimes and injuries, and now at the end of a Sunday afternoon, he's probably sorer than he was 10 years ago, but there's a greater feeling of accomplishment. He's part of a team that wins, and he's making calls on a defense that has become almost impossible to penetrate.
"I used to joke I'm not going to make it to the Hall of Fame: `I just missed the Hall of Fame,' " Johnson kidded. "So then your attention goes somewhere else. You have the success you have and then you think you aspire to be in a Pro Bowl someday so people will consider you one of the best at what you do.
"I've slowed way down on that. I have a family now. I'm at a totally different place in my life now, and I like where I'm at. It's a comfortable place for me. At this point, I couldn't be happier."
He had chances to leave, but deep down he never wanted to. Belichick gave him the option of making his own deal, and for a time he thought about being a Green Bay Packer. But he always reworked his contract to stay in New England.
There was a time when Johnson had philosophical differences with Belichick, prompting him to leave the team feeling he was unwanted and had been made promises that were not kept. But again he returned and worked things out.
He knows the NFL isn't forever. He feels he's lasted longer than most. And while he's never made a Pro Bowl, he is a player others look up to for the way he plays and the class he shows on and off the field.
He's a tireless worker who spends a lot of money to prepare his body to play every Sunday.
"I have a team of people working on me, spend a lot of money, but it works for me," he said. "I don't take this for granted. I've had some great highs and I've gone very, very low. We've had situations where we've had team success, where we haven't had team success or personal success where we've had to deal with that. My ego has taken some shots. It's been a ton of things -- your identity and where you fit in, where's your place on this team. You're a starter most of your career and then you're not.
"I wouldn't trade those experiences in for anything, but I hope I look back when I get older and say the same things. Have I always wanted more? Yeah, but I think having experienced tough times is going to serve me better in my life down the road. So for that I feel fortunate."
Johnson is playing well these days, well enough that Belichick mentions him now and then, as he did in yesterday's news conference.
It is games such as Sunday's 24-3 victory over Baltimore that remind Johnson why he loves to play so much. Playing in a rainstorm reminded Johnson of games in his backyard in the mud, when he was a kid, when it was football at its simplest, purest form.
"It was muddy out there from the first snap," he said. "It was soupy, man. I've played football since I was this big [about 4 feet]. I love contact and I love to play in mud. That's what's great about the NFL, they don't call games for anything. What makes football fun is the elements, and you can't simulate that in practice."