Where was Charles Johnson during the month of August?
Flying low, well under the radar, which is the way this small-town Georgia product likes it. He barely played in the Carolina Panthers’ four exhibitions – missing three of the games entirely – and has quietly gone about trying to fix a problematic hamstring over the past couple of weeks.
But Johnson is about to become very noticeable once again. His teammates elected him as one of six team captains Monday. And coach Ron Rivera said Monday that Johnson will be “ready to roll” Sunday in Carolina’s season opener at Tampa Bay.
He better be. Johnson takes the biggest chunk out of the Panthers’ salary cap – a startling $16.4 million this season – and must justify that cap hit once again in 2014 in a league built on the “What have you done for me lately?” mentality.
Just because No. 95 has had four straight years with nine or more sacks for Carolina doesn’t guarantee a fifth. And then there’s that hamstring – an injury Johnson has never experienced before and that he acknowledges has been “frustrating.”
While Rivera said that Johnson could have played last week in the final exhibition at Pittsburgh had it been a regular-season game, Johnson said “it would have been tough” to do so. Hamstrings are tricky and have sometimes nag at NFL players all season, hampering their movement and effectiveness.
“You’ve just got to stay on top of it,” Johnson said. “I feel pretty confident (about playing Sunday). I’m just taking it day by day.”
Entering his eighth season, Johnson has been around long enough that he is friends with Tampa Bay starting quarterback Josh McCown dating from McCown’s two years as a backup in Carolina (2008 and ’09).
McCown barely played for Carolina while backing up Jake Delhomme, but Johnson remembers chasing him around both in practice and on a basketball court at the Dowd YMCA near Bank of America Stadium.
“He’s athletic, man,” Johnson said of McCown. “He can play. He can shoot, and he plays with a couple of NBA guys, so he’s more athletic than people know. ... I think he could play [basketball] professionally.”
Johnson and the rest of the Panthers’ defensive line will try to limit McCown’s athleticism, though. “You’ve got to surround him and try to make him make bad decisions,” Johnson said.
The Panthers led the NFL with 60 sacks in 2013 and were No. 2 in points allowed. Johnson and fellow defensive end Greg Hardy were an enormous part of that, combining for 26 sacks. Together they have 49.5 over the past two seasons, which is tied for the most by an NFL duo in that time span along with St. Louis’s Chris Long and Robert Quinn.
Johnson has never been a vocal leader – it is not his style – but Rivera has long respected his work ethic. He thrust leadership upon Johnson in 2012, appointing him a captain after Jon Beason went down with an injury.
Now Johnson has been elected by his peers, which Rivera applauded.
“It helps him to realize that people do look up to him,” Rivera said. “Some guys don’t want to be that guy in front. All of a sudden, this kind of forces him to be out in front, and I think that helps him.”
It is certainly time for Johnson to be front and center.
The Panthers’ offense has numerous question marks. It makes sense to think that if Carolina is going to win its season opener for the first time in Rivera’s four-year tenure, it will do so with defense.
It’s time for Johnson to re-emerge. Time to earn the money.