As he returned to the Panthers’ locker room following a short weightlifting session Thursday afternoon, defensive end Charles Johnson agreed to talk to a reporter.
The initial topic? Johnson’s dislike of the spotlight.
Before he could answer, a larger group descended to ask Johnson about his strained right groin and his availability for Sunday’s game against the Falcons.
Like it or not, Johnson was unable to avoid the media attention leading up to Sunday’s matchup with the Atlanta Falcons (2-5) at 1 p.m. at Bank of America Stadium.
If he wasn’t giving daily injury updates – he has said repeatedly he will play, and is listed as probable – then he was recounting his 3 1/2-sack game at Atlanta last season.
But in terms of national publicity, Johnson has gone largely unnoticed.
Despite ranking seventh in the NFL with 39 sacks since becoming a full-time starter in 2010, Johnson has never been to a Pro Bowl. His only All-Pro recognition is a second-team mention on Pro Football Focus’ All-NFL team following the 2010 season.
Johnson, who signed a six-year, $76 million contract in 2011 that was the richest in Panthers history, is more of what NFL people call a “grinder” than a star.
Asked for one word to describe Johnson, Panthers coach Ron Rivera mentioned “enigma” and “aloof” before landing on “consistent.”
“He’s a little bit of an enigma for me trying to figure him out,” Rivera said. “Sometimes you look at him and go, ‘Oh, he doesn’t care.’ Other times you look at him and go, ‘Oh boy, it means a lot to him.’
“At practice, he picks his moments and he goes hard. And then he goes to the sideline and stands. He’s kind of aloof at times because he doesn’t want you to think he cares.
“Then you watch him, and he cares.”
Rivera said there is “definitely a cool factor” when it comes to Johnson not wanting to appear too wrapped up in all things football. But Johnson’s actions belie that front.
Tuesdays are typically a day off for players during the season – a chance to get away from the facility and decompress. It’s also the day teams bring in free agents for workouts.
A couple of times this season, Rivera has gone to the Panthers’ practice fields to observe workouts and found Johnson doing drills with blocking dummies on his own.
During a practice earlier this season, Rivera said Johnson and defensive end Greg Hardy nearly came to blows arguing about when and how to correct a couple of the Panthers’ young defensive linemen who had messed up in a drill. Hardy wanted to correct them immediately; the laid-back Johnson was urging Hardy to relax.
So yeah, Johnson cares.
“He’s not an outspoken, in-the-media type guy,” Hardy said. “But he’s an instrumental guy in the locker room (and) on the field. When the cameras are on him but you can’t really see what he’s saying, he’s always rallying us, getting us together, holding us together and just being a team leader. He’s the guy, believe it or not.”
A leader on Sundays
Johnson was named a defensive captain last year when linebacker Jon Beason was lost to season-ending injuries after the first month of the season. But Johnson was not among the six captains elected this season.
Hardy said Johnson’s leadership comes through on Sundays, never more so than during his monster game at Atlanta last year, when he set a team record for sacks.
“That’s a big example of a leader being a leader, Charles stepping up and just coming out and inspiring the guys that look up to him,” Hardy said. “It set us off into a race to see who could be the next guy to help and participate and keep (Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan) in the pocket so Charles didn’t have to chase him.
“And then it turned into a frenzy of who’s going to get the next one? Then, who doesn’t have one, let’s go get one. It’s contagious.”
With Johnson leading the way, the Panthers ended up sacking Ryan seven times. But the Falcons prevailed 30-28 on a game-winning field goal by Matt Bryant after Ryan hit Roddy White for a 59-yard completion in the final minute.
It’s about as low as Johnson, who grew up in rural Georgia and played at the University of Georgia, has felt on a football field.
“Yeah, I was pretty sick after that game,” he said. “But what don’t kill you will make you stronger, right?”
A changed man
Johnson was raised by a single mother in Hawkinsville, Ga., a small town in central Georgia about 125 miles southeast of Atlanta. Jackie Kearney worked in a nursing home to support her two sons until Johnson was drafted by the Panthers in the third round in 2007.
“The day I got in the NFL, that’s the day she retired,” said Johnson, who built his mother a house in Hawkinsville.
Johnson, 27, didn’t have a relationship with his father and vowed to do things differently when he became a parent, which he figured would be in his 30s. When his son, Charles Jr., was born two years ago, Johnson said it changed him.
“It slows you down, makes you more responsible. You look at him, you can see yourself and just see him growing. That’s the good thing about it. There’s certain things that he does that make you proud to be a parent,” Johnson said.
“I was that guy; I didn’t want kids at an early age. But then when it happens, you’ve got to flip the whole script. It’s been a blessing. I’m proud to have him.”
Johnson said he’s spending more time at the in-town home he shares with his girlfriend and their son than he did before becoming a father in September 2011.
“I was living by myself. I didn’t have any responsibilities,” Johnson said. “So I was out and about. I used to go to a friend’s house and just chill because I stayed with myself so much. Now it’s like you’ve got something to come home to.”
Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, who has a son about the same age as Johnson’s, said he’ll often ask Johnson to come out with him after games.
“Just for a little joke, because I know he wants to spend as much time with his kid,” Munnerlyn said. “There isn’t anything wrong with that. I actually look up to him for that.”
Munnerlyn also respects what Johnson has done since becoming a starter after Julius Peppers signed as a free agent with Chicago after the 2009 season.
Since the start of the 2010 season, Johnson has 39 sacks, 10 forced fumbles and nine pass breakups. Peppers has 31.5 sacks, nine forced fumbles and 15 pass breakups during that span.
Peppers has been to the Pro Bowl after each of his first three seasons in Chicago, and eight times overall. Johnson has yet to make it to Hawaii.
“They say once you get that name, it’s hard to knock you down,” Munnerlyn said. “There’s a lot of guys at defensive end that already have that name. They just haven’t been knocked down yet. But I definitely believe that Charles deserves to have one of those big-time names because he’s a big-time player.”
Rivera said the fact that Johnson plays on the left side, where right-handed quarterbacks usually can see him coming, costs Johnson a few sacks. But Rivera said Johnson is more than an edge-rusher, citing his ability to stop the run.
“There are some things he does timely as opposed to those 18, 19 (sacks a year) numbers” Rivera said. “Consistent is a good word because he has played very consistent.”
Johnson leads the Panthers and is tied for 12th in the league with six sacks, and he has 18.5 sacks over his past 20 games. Rivera said Johnson averages between two to three hits on quarterbacks a game.
“He’s around (the ball),” Rivera said. “He’s consistent, doing the things we need him to do.”
A job to do
What the Panthers need Johnson to do Sunday is help throttle Atlanta’s NFL-worst rushing attack, get the Falcons in third-and-long and put pressure on Ryan. Johnson will be less than 100 percent after injuring his groin late in the Panthers’ 31-13 win at Tampa Bay on Oct. 24.
Johnson said he was tired after the Buccaneers recovered an onsides kick in the final minutes, keeping the Panthers’ defense on the field. He indicated his fatigue might have contributed to the injury.
“He wants to be out there all the time,” Rivera said. “And he’s got to understand if we’ve got them backed up and he’s tired, come off the field. Get your break, get yourself ready so the next time it’s a third-and-long, go on and get your play. He cares so much, but at the same time he doesn’t really want people to know.”
The Falcons don’t need any convincing.
“I just know him from playing against him, he doesn’t fly under our radar,” Ryan said. “We play against him twice a year and have since I’ve been here, and I know that he’s a game-changer.”
Falcons coach Mike Smith calls Johnson “relentless.”
“His production, not just this year but the last three years, has been outstanding,” Smith said. “He’s a high-effort guy. ... He’s got a motor that doesn’t stop.”
Hardy, whose locker is a couple of stalls away from Johnson’s, is generally more than willing to entertain the press with his musings on his Kraken alter-ego, his Monsters Inc. nicknames for his defensive teammates or his observations on the size and shape of opposing place-kickers.
Talking about Johnson recently, Hardy at first referred to him as a “complicated” figure. But Hardy later concluded Johnson isn’t really all that difficult to figure out.
“He likes sacks and he hates Atlanta,” Hardy said. “That’s what I know about the guy.”
Johnson laughed when told about Hardy’s comments.
He didn’t disagree.
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