KANSAS CITY, Mo. —Two years ago, Derrick Johnson was confused. Here he stood, at his locker at the end of his fifth NFL season, and talked about where his career might go — because with the Chiefs, it seemed to be going nowhere.
"I haven't lost trust yet," he said in December 2009. "But it's possible."
At the time, Johnson was a mostly disappointing former first-round pick who had been shuffled among several linebacker positions, primarily in an attempt to jump-start his vast potential. In 2009, Johnson had been shuffled right out of the lineup.
Two years later, a challenge accepted and conquered, Johnson is now one of the Chiefs' best — and, more important, most reliable — defenders and this week was selected to his first Pro Bowl. He is a sure tackler, a solid player in coverage, but the thing that has set Johnson apart these past two seasons, his best as a pro, was a growing familiarity of the Chiefs' defense and bred confidence, leadership and success.
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Two seasons ago, Johnson was benched, in an effort for former coach Todd Haley to make a point. Johnson's effort was lacking, even if he didn't realize it, and one of the team's most talented players was sent to the second-team defense. Johnson was perplexed. Looking back, Johnson acknowledged this week that he began to see the circumstances pulling him out of Kansas City — and onto a team where he had an honest chance.
"I wasn't like, 'I don't want to be a Chief.' But could I see myself in the future here? At the time, I couldn't really see it," he said, standing in front of the same locker. "I always loved being a Chief, and this is all I know. But... that was cloudy for sure."
Johnson's rookie contract, which he signed in 2005 after the Chiefs drafted him at No. 15 overall pick, expired after the '09 season. The team, whose coaches still believed he could be motivated toward greatness, signed him to an unrestricted free-agent tender in spring 2010, and offered him an open competition to again prove himself as the starter.
He responded, beating out Demorrio Williams for the starting job, and going on to establish staggering improvements in several statistical areas. Before the 2010 season, Johnson's career-high in tackles was 95, during his rookie season. Last year, he passed that with 121 — and that number has, through 15 contests this season, already been surpassed with 126 tackles. Johnson also defended 16 passes in 2010, smashing his previous career-high of six, and forced four fumbles.
Johnson was a machine, and if it was redemption for the linebacker, it was a relief for the Chiefs that he chose the route he did.
"Guys do not (always) accept the challenge, or they don't approach it the same way about losing their job," said interim Chiefs coach Romeo Crennel, who joined the team in 2010 as defensive coordinator. "Sometimes guys, when they lose their job, they pout or they go into the tank and never come out. At least Derrick decided that he was going to compete."
Johnson might have considered life beyond Kansas City, but by the middle of last season, the decision had been made that he wouldn't soon be departing the Chiefs. Last November, Johnson signed a five-year extension worth $34 million and $15 million guaranteed.
He is now seen as part of the Chiefs' present and future, and during a season of worry and chaos, he has been a calming presence.
Johnson and outside linebacker Tamba Hali, another defender whose future with the team was once uncertain, were the Chiefs' only two Pro Bowlers. Johnson said he hopes there are more in his future.
"They say once you go one time," he said, "you want to go back."
Not only that, but Johnson said there's plenty more he'd like to accomplish in his career. One of those is, of course, bringing a Super Bowl championship back to Kansas City. Another is to help be part of a feared defense that lifts the Chiefs into conversations among the league's best teams — those predicted to win their divisions each year.
"Just a lot of stuff I want to do," he said.
It might not have seemed like it two years ago, but whatever memorable things Johnson does, he has put himself in a position to do them with the only NFL team he has known.