OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Former Ravens linebacker Jarret Johnson sent a text message to running back Ray Rice and several other former teammates Wednesday afternoon ahead of Sunday’s game in San Diego and the message was clear.
Guys, you better bring your game faces!
The new Chargers linebacker has adjusted to life in a new town, but he still identifies with the city he called home for nine years. Old feelings don’t die easily, especially when you have the type of blue-collar reputation revered in a place like Baltimore.
“It was weird the first time I saw them on TV,” Johnson said. “It was really weird watching the Pittsburgh game the other night on the way home from Denver. That’s a game the Ravens look forward to, and looking out there and me not being one of them was a little weird.”
It was just eight months ago that a choked-up Johnson sent another text message to those same teammates, informing them of his decision to sign a four-year, $19 million contract with the San Diego Chargers in what was a bittersweet day for the 31-year-old. He knew it was time to move on as the Ravens were strapped for salary cap room while Johnson wanted a long-term contract for the latter portion of his career.
He now faces those former teammates for the first time this Sunday as the Ravens look to improve to 9-2 and avenge an embarrassing 34-14 loss from last season. At 4-6, the Chargers have struggled offensively, but Johnson has been a welcome addition to a respectable defense that ranks eighth in total yards and tied for 13th in points allowed.
Serving primarily in running situations in his first season with San Diego, Johnson has accumulated 26 tackles, one sack, and a forced fumble.
Never possessing the flash of Ray Lewis or the physical tools of Terrell Suggs, Johnson prided himself on doing the dirty work, setting the edge at the strongside linebacker position and playing in a franchise-record 129 consecutive games before his free-agent departure in March.
His 382 tackles, nine forced fumbles, and 20 sacks over his nine years in Baltimore all rank in the top 10 in the history of the franchise.
“He epitomized what it was to be a Raven,” Rice said. “He was a no-nonsense kind of guy here.”
The scene figures to be especially significant for Suggs, who roomed with Johnson when they were rookies in 2003. Suggs was the Ravens’ first-round pick while Johnson was an undersized defensive lineman from Alabama drafted in the fourth round.
Johnson transitioned from the defensive line to outside linebacker and worked his way up the depth chart in the early years of his career before finally joining Suggs in the starting lineup in 2007. Though offering different skills, the two formed one of the top outside linebacker duos in the NFL over a five-year period.
“I’m definitely going to give him a hug,” said Suggs, who joked about offering the silent treatment or even a cheap shot to his former teammate. “Me and Jarret, we came in the same class together [in the 2003 draft], and it was nine years, me and him. It’s definitely going to be a little emotional to see him wearing a different color and playing for a different team.”
Both have faced trials this season as Johnson took on the challenge of adjusting to new coaches and teammates as well as an entirely different defensive system while Suggs rehabbed from surgery to repair a partially-torn Achilles tendon sustained in late April.
The two kept in touch over those months but will now be on opposing sides in San Diego on Sunday.
“We’ve been through a lot of wars together,” Johnson said. “We are kind of polar opposites personality-wise, but it was kind of an odd mix. The experiences you go through on and off the football field are things that you remember forever. He’s been a very important person in my football career.”
As he expressed the day he signed with the Chargers on March 14, Johnson holds no ill thoughts toward his former team. The business side of the game can be difficult to accept for many players when they’re forced to depart the place they called home, but the former Raven sounds happy, even if San Diego appears to be a team in transition and likely heading toward a coaching change.
It isn’t Baltimore, but Johnson is feeling right at home.
“I wanted to finish my career there,” Johnson said. “It’s where I spent nine great years. Love the staff there. Definitely where I wanted to finish, but I kind of knew the writing on the wall going into the [final] year. You can’t pay everybody.
“I was just fortunate enough to have a team like San Diego. Other than staying, I couldn’t have drawn up a better storyline for my career.”