The importance of Brent Johnson

Andrew Bucholtz

The B.C. Lions announced today that defensive end Brent Johnson (pictured above sacking Hamilton quarterback Kevin Glenn in the 2009 East semi-final) has agreed to an extension that will take him through the 2012 season. This isn't a move to avoid free agency this year, as Johnson wasn't listed as a potential free agent, so his existing contract must have run through 2011. It is a good move by the team, though, and it's one that illustrates a couple of interesting things about the CFL.

First, the move to keep Johnson (who unjustly isn't even the most famous athlete with that name) demonstrates the importance of experience and longevity in the CFL, which I've written about before. Johnson, born in December, is currently 34 and will be turning 36 shortly after this contract runs out. South of the border, his age likely would be viewed as a sure sign that he's on the downslope of his career, and it probably would keep teams from offering him an extension until they had to. In the CFL, though, age has its benefits; last season, players over 30 were close to the top of every major statistics category, and 43 per cent of the divisional all-stars were over 30.

In my mind, that contrast is partly thanks to a somewhat less physically punishing game that allows many older CFL players to stay healthier than their NFL counterparts, but it's perhaps even more due to the time it can take to figure out the intricacies of the Canadian game. Many of the young guys coming into the league may have more raw athletic talent than the veterans, but they haven't necessarily figured out how a bigger field and 12-man squads dramatically alter the game. The older guys have seen it all before, and those who aren't as quick often have a good idea where the ball's going. Football's as much an intellectual game as it is a physical one, and experience can be a huge asset in a game that's drastically different from the one many of the league's players have grown up with.

What's even more notable about Johnson, though, is the impact he made on the thinking of the league's personnel men. As I've written before, many people on the personnel side of the game have tended to think in pretty limited terms about the value of Canadian players, seeing the Canadian talent pool as extremely top-heavy and yet still restricted to only a few positions where they wouldn't hurt you too much. Johnson is one of a growing group of talented Canadian players who have done much to dispel both of those myths.

On the top-heavy front, it's worth noting that Johnson was drafted in the third round by B.C. in 2000, 20th overall. That's a heck of a pick in retrospect, considering that few of the players above him had notable CFL careers (Adriano Belli, Tim Bakker, Shawn Gallant and George Hudson being the primary exceptions). The success of Johnson and other players chosen late shows there is plenty of Canadian talent out there, and that's one of the main reasons teams are taking the draft more seriously these days.

Johnson's impact on the positional front is even more notable, though. As mentioned above, for a long time the dominant strain of thought was that you find acceptable Canadian players to satisfy the ratio requirements, but then bring in American stars to fill the glamour positions and make the big plays. That kind of thinking still exists in several areas, particularly with the lack of consideration still given to Canadian quarterbacks, but even that may change eventually. The play of Johnson and other trailblazers like Dave Sapunjis helped to prove that Canadians could do much more than just fill spots on a roster, though.

Johnson has twice led the CFL in sacks, recording 17 in 2005 and 16 in 2006. He won the CFL's Most Outstanding Defensive Player award the latter year, which is an incredible honour for a Canadian player; going back through the records, it appears Johnson was the first Canadian-born player to claim the award since Eskimos' defensive tackle Dave "Dr. Death" Fennell did so in 1978. It looks like Johnson's also only the fourth Canadian-born player to ever win the award; the others are Fennell, Jim Corrigall and Bill "The Undertaker" Baker (as an aside, the CFL really should bring back some of the great old-school nicknames). Johnson also picked up the league's Most Outstanding Canadian Award in 2005 and 2006. He's a five-time divisional all-star and a three-time league all-star, and he played a key role in mentoring fellow defensive linemen who became stars, like Cam Wake and Ricky Foley.

Perhaps Johnson's most impressive accomplishment is his consistency. He's never missed a CFL game, pushing his streak to 168 consecutive contests last year. That's incredible at a physically taxing position like defensive end, where many players are frequently injured. He's also B.C.'s career sack leader with 83 (impressive, considering that they've had the likes of James "Quick" Parker). Moreover, he's proven to be excellent at defending both the run and the pass, and he can still play; last season, he recorded seven sacks, 29 defensive tackles, three forced fumbles, two pass knockdowns and one tackle for a loss en route to earning a divisional all-star nod. If Johnson can keep turning in those kinds of performances, he'll be a valuable player for years to come and will continue proving the doubters wrong.