Josh Johnson symbolizes potential to turn season around
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. Josh Johnson didn’t collapse to the turf, exactly. He sat on the sideline, rolled onto his stomach and slapped the ground with his palm five quick times.
The Washington Redskins had just won, 16-13 over the Jacksonville Jaguars on a late field goal, and a moment of genuine elation and relief overpowered the 32-year-old quarterback. Johnson came a long, long way to achieve his first win as an NFL starter.
“To have everything that’s been bottled up in me for years, to just let it out, it was a relief,” Johnson said.
The Redskins’ starter went 16-for-25 for 151 yards and a touchdown, ran for 49 yards and led both a game-tying and a game-winning drive in the fourth quarter. After the team tried some different offensive alignments in the first quarter, and after Johnson took a few sacks due to not making quick enough decisions with the ball, he settled in and had a much better second half.
Not only was it Johnson’s first career win, it was the Redskins’ first win since quarterback Alex Smith was lost for the year and maybe longer with a gruesome broken leg. Since then, the Redskins couldn’t buy a win with either Colt McCoy or Mark Sanchez under center.
The weaknesses of a 4-10 Jaguars team aside, Sunday was different somehow. Johnson said so himself.
“One thing that I knew coming into this week (was) that I was different,” Johnson said. “I knew I was different than the guy I was in 2011. I wasn’t nervous talking to you guys. I wasn’t worried about everybody texting me. I knew that comes with the territory, so I was able to really just focus on what matters, and that’s trying to get a win versus Jacksonville.”
Just as Johnson put aside whatever “journeyman” or “bust” label he may have carried to go out and win Sunday, the Redskins might need to have that same mindset to forget about the four-game losing streak the just snapped and re-establish their identity.
At 7-7, Washington moved within a game of first in the NFC East with two weeks to play, and the team is very much alive in the wild-card hunt as well. Is it unfathomable that Johnson could lead the team to wins over the Titans and Eagles in the next two weeks to snag a playoff seed that nobody seems to want to lock up?
Redskins coaches had spent weeks saying the team just needed more practice reps with McCoy, then with Sanchez, running the first-team offense. Johnson, like Sanchez, was signed midseason as the injuries piled up.
Johnson took those reps this week. But he also saw the second half as a turning point, as the patterns and intangibles of football began to click between himself and his still-new teammates.
“In the second half, everybody got in a rhythm with each other a little bit,” Johnson said. “We all got comfortable, a lot more comfortable. Coaches, on how I was handling plays. Guys getting used to my voice. It was just a lot of stuff that you, it’s a lot of little things that you get year-round that we were kind of doing it all in one week.”
Redskins players are happy with their new starter, too, from Adrian Peterson on down. Peterson and Johnson entered the NFL one year apart, and though both are vets, their careers have taken wildly different paths.
“I’m always talking to Josh,” Peterson said. “I tell him, ‘Hey, be great, just continue to do what you do. A big play is coming to you.’ And he’s a veteran, so he knows how to overcome adversity. But me being a veteran as well, I know how you can (feel) from time to time, so I’m always trying to say little things to him or whatever, just check his temperature. And he’s always locked in.”
Johnson respects Peterson and said he reminds him of his cousin Oakland Raiders running back Marshawn Lynch.
“I was telling him after the game, like, ‘You and Marshawn are so alike, it’s crazy,’” Johnson said. “So just to have somebody back there like that, you know that people got your back.”
Linebacker Mason Foster overlapped with Johnson in 2011, the year the Tampa Bay Buccaneers drafted Foster while Johnson was still a backup there.
“He kind of took me under his wing as a rookie in Tampa, even as a quarterback,” Foster said. “He’s a great leader, a great guy to have around.”
There’s also Johnson’s connection to coach Jay Gruden. Gruden and Johnson were in Tampa Bay together in 2008, Johnson’s rookie season, and then with the Cincinnati Bengals in 2013 when Gruden was their offensive coordinator.
Gruden shook Johnson’s hand before kickoff and gave him some concise words of wisdom.
“Calm down,” the coach said, according to Johnson.
“Jay’s always been the same. That’s what I love about Jay. He’s been consistent with me since Day 1 when I met him in Tampa and he was a GA,” Johnson said. “I respect people who’s consistent. He never changes up who he is, he respects the position and does a great job coaching us.”
Gruden said Johnson played “really good” despite missing a few things early in the game.
“We had some pressure early and didn’t get a couple of shots downfield. But the second half, he stuck with the plan and made some plays outside the pocket with his legs which is outstanding,” Gruden said. “What can you say? We just came to Jacksonville and beat the Jaguars, and he was a big part of that.”
With McCoy still working his way back from a leg injury, the Redskins might need Johnson to start again Saturday in Tennessee. Only two weeks remain in the regular season, and a player who wasn’t on the roster until his signing Dec. 5 has now rescued the Redskins from the certainty of a dire ending to the year. He’s had time to get to know his teammates, not just learn their names from “Madden.”
So, Josh, is this a playoff team?
“We’re in a great position to be,” he said, before adding, “Nothing I can say right now won’t mean anything if we don’t get out next week and get the job done. So I’m really just focused on our action. Our action tomorrow, our action Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday is what’s gonna put us in position to win.”
Like his cousin Lynch, he’s all about that action, boss.