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As Derrick Johnson stared across from Jon Gruden on Thursday, a question from the Oakland Raiders’ new head coach hung in the air.
“You’ve spent 13 years in K.C. … you could just ride into the sunset,” Gruden asked the four-time Pro Bowler. “Why do you still want to play?”
The fact Gruden himself just faced similar questions after returning from a coaching hiatus that started in 2009 was not lost on the 35-year-old inside linebacker, who was released by the only professional team he has ever known only two months ago.
“Yeah, you’re right,” Johnson replied with a chuckle. “But I still have a fire burning. I can still play at a high level, and I want to prove that.”
The answer was a simple one, expected even, but Johnson remembers Gruden’s excitement about his response, and how, at that moment in Gruden’s office, he immediately sensed a kindred spirit.
“That [response] made his eyeballs jump, because he’s got a lot to prove, too,” Johnson told Yahoo Sports on Friday. “There was an environment in the room that was very contagious. I knew a deal would happen after I left.”
A short-term agreement was reached as a Kansas City Chiefs franchise icon decided to sign with his former team’s long-time archrival Friday. The deal is for one year and worth up to $3 million, sources told Yahoo Sports.
On the surface, some will be tempted to write off Johnson’s deal, first reported by NFL Network, as a familiar storyline. An older coach, stubbornly continuing to load up on veterans in an effort to win right now, linking up with an older linebacker he has long liked.
Sure, maybe this story has some elements of that. After all, the Raiders have signed a small army of players ages 30 and older this offseason, and Johnson has long known Gruden shared the same affinity for him as Chiefs coach Andy Reid, who basically campaigned for Johnson to join his Kansas City coaching staff following his release.
“I’m one of Gruden’s favorite players — he’s always had a soft spot for me,” Johnson said. “He’s always said that over the years.”
Johnson’s decision to sign with the Raiders also signals some other things. Like how serious Johnson is about ending his career on his terms and how serious Gruden — whose Raiders have acquired or re-signed a spat of veterans this offseason — is about ending Reid’s stranglehold on the AFC West.
“I’m not playing for a rebuilding-type year,” Johnson said. “I sensed an urgency from Coach Gruden that winning is important right now.”
Surely, Johnson’s expansive knowledge of the Chiefs’ offense (he practiced against it nearly every day for the past five years) could easily help the Raiders, who are a miserable 2-8 against Kansas City since Reid took over before the 2013 season.
Johnson concedes he is not the player he used to be, thanks to a second Achilles injury in 2016 that sapped him of some lateral agility and roving speed that made him one of the game’s most underrated players at his position. But he still has high football intelligence. That should help a team that opted not to retain veteran inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman this offseason.
Gruden “wants me to help the young guys, be a leader and step right in and help the guys on and off the field,” said Johnson, who willingly mentored his replacement in Kansas City last year (Reggie Ragland). Johnson could be a positive influence for gifted-but-troubled edge rusher Arden Key, a third-round draft pick the Raiders made last week.
And if the 6-foot-3 Johnson, who says he is now five pounds lighter (228) than his playing weight a year ago, recaptures some of his old form and earns a starting job in Oakland, it will be excruciating for Chiefs fans to watch, a possibility Johnson and Gruden discussed (briefly) in the coach’s office Thursday.
“We both knew this would raise eyebrows with some people, being I’m the Chiefs’ all-time leading tackler,” Johnson said. “Yeah, it’s a little different. But I still want to play ball.”
Johnson would have preferred the Chiefs. Late last season, he said so publicly, even though the club had already started handing some of Johnson’s playing time to younger, faster players.
While the Chiefs broke it to him in February that they planned to move on without him, Johnson insists he did not leave Kansas City on bad terms. The Chiefs announced the move in a news release complete with quotes from the team owner (Clark Hunt), general manager (Brett Veach) and head coach (Andy Reid), treatment the club reserves for only its long-time stars, which Johnson appreciated.
Yet, football goes on. Over the course of the next several weeks, Johnson had communication with several teams, with the Raiders not only being the only one to set up a visit, but also the only one to lay out a potential path to playing time. In the end, those factors — combined with his encouraging sit-down with Gruden this week in Oakland — led him to join forces with his new coach, with both sides holding no shortage of motivation.
“I believe I can still play at a high level, and for me, my family and my legacy, I’m trying to figure out how can I chase that ring,” said Johnson, who has won only one playoff game in his career. “Even though it’s a rival team, this is my best opportunity to chase a dream and play an important role. I have to go somewhere where there’s a plan for me, and that’s the Oakland Raiders.”
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