There isn’t much doubt in
Ryan took a defensive tackle out of Alabama and transformed him into one of the most solid outside linebackers in the game.
Johnson’s story is an unlikely one that is best told by Ryan, who couldn’t stop praising his former player.
“He was the toughest dude I ever coached,” Ryan said during Wednesday’s conference call with the media. “And that’s saying something, because I’ve coached a lot of tough guys. This guy is tough, durable and he’s a heck of a football player. He’s a very physical player. You look at his background and here’s a guy who was a defensive tackle at Alabama. This ought to tell you something too: he was a two-time captain at Alabama, which doesn’t happen. He’s tough as nails. We bring him in, make him a 3-4 defensive end and then later move him to outside linebacker. Very few college defensive tackles are NFL outside linebackers. But that just tells you about that kind of mentality. He’d just as soon smash you as do anything else, but he’s that kind of guy. He’s a warrior. He’s got great hands, he’s physical, strong and is just a great teammate. He’s a mean kid. I’ve got to watch him from the other sideline, but he’s something else.”
So does Johnson consider Ryan his mentor?
Simply put, Johnson credits Ryan for his entire NFL career.
“(He) looked at me and somehow saw an outside linebacker when nobody else did,” he said. “I could have easily been taken and drafted and have it said ‘No, he’s too slow, let’s get rid of him.’ But he said ‘No, he’s good at this and good at that.’ He’s a pretty smart guy and that’s what they did.”
Ryan’s belief in Johnson has been the Chargers gain. Although his stats don’t pop out (he has 34 tackles, 1.5 sacks and one forced fumble), he does all the dirty work that allows his teammates to make big plays. He is also one of the unquestioned leaders of the defense.
“I think everyone talks about leadership, but the best leadership you give is about how you go out and perform,” head coach Norv Turner said about Johnson. “How you approach your day to day job. If any of our younger guys watched him play in the game last week and watch his effort on every single play, and how physical he played and how hard he competed in a game that obviously as the game went on it was harder and harder to do that, he never blinked and he is a warrior and a great role model for any guy that wants to be a player in this league.”
Win or lose come Sunday, Johnson plans on seeking out his mentor after the final buzzer sounds.
“I’ll run up, punch Rex in the gut and give him a big old hug,” said Johnson. “He’s meant the world to my career. Probably without him, I don’t think I’d be this far along.”