Redskins sign free agent running back Larry Johnson

By Rick Maese
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 13, 2010; D01

Making their biggest splash in a relatively quiet free agency period, the Redskins on Friday signed veteran running back Larry Johnson, whose off-the-field problems have at times overshadowed his on-field exploits.

The team would not release terms of the deal, but a person with knowledge of the negotiations said Johnson signed a three-year contract that carries a base salary of $3.5 million and could be worth $12 million with incentives.

The Redskins hope Johnson, 30, will complement running back Clinton Portis in their revamped offense and also push Portis on the practice field.

Johnson, a two-time Pro Bowler, was released by the Kansas City Chiefs last year after making offensive remarks and played the final seven games of the season with the Cincinnati Bengals as a reserve. On the year, Johnson had 581 yards on 178 carries and no touchdowns in 14 games. His last 1,000-yard season was 2006, when he rushed for a career-high 1,789 yards and scored 17 touchdowns.

Just as the Redskins are looking at 2010 as a turning point, Johnson will come to Washington and try to embark on a fresh start of his own.

"Larry doesn't look at the past," said Johnson's agent, Peter Schaffer. "You can only be judged by what you do as a human being and a man. He's got a child on the way, and I think he's grown up a great deal."

Neither Johnson nor Redskins coaches were made available for comment Friday evening. In a prepared statement, Coach Mike Shanahan said: "We are excited to bring in a running back that has had so much success in this league. Larry is a physical runner who will be a great addition to our backfield."

Johnson is a Maryland native who was born in Pomfret and began his high school playing career at La Plata in Charles County. Johnson, a first-round draft pick in 2003 out of Penn State, is familiar with Shanahan. The two battled each other in the AFC West for years, Johnson with the Chiefs and Shanahan with the Denver Broncos.

"I've known and have a lot of respect for Mike Shanahan and the things that he did in Denver," Johnson told ESPN 980 Thursday night. "Of course I played against him numerous times, so I've been able to know that he comes with that fire and comes with that enthusiasm [about] turning this organization around."

The Johnson signing is not without its share of baggage. In Kansas City, Johnson clashed with former coach Dick Vermeil, complained about not getting to carry the ball enough, twice faced suspensions, threatened to miss training camp over a contract dispute and ultimately was released midway through the 2009 season after calling out his coaches via Twitter and hurling gay slurs at members of the media.

Johnson has been arrested four times for domestic violence-related incidents, and in March 2009 he pleaded guilty to two counts of disturbing the peace, which stemmed from separate incidents. He was sentenced to two years' probation and ordered to complete both anger control counseling and 40 hours of community service.

He signed with Cincinnati on Nov. 17 and appeared in the team's final seven games. He tallied 204 yards on 46 carries there, and the Bengals reported no off-the-field problems. Johnson became an unrestricted free agent following the season.

On the field, he was among the league's most productive runners for a two-year stretch. In 2005-06, Johnson rushed for a combined 3,539 yards and 37 touchdowns. Prior to that, he shared a backfield with Priest Holmes, the Chiefs' all-time leading rusher, and had relatively few carries in his first three seasons.

On the prospect of sharing the backfield with Portis, Johnson told ESPN 980: "It'd be just like how me and Priest Holmes was way back in the day. It'd be nice to be able to play aside somebody like that."

But Johnson has reached the age that many consider the point-of-no-return for NFL running backs. Even so, Johnson has 35 percent fewer career carries than Portis, 1,421 compared to 2,176. Portis is two years younger.

"The Washington Redskins have got not only a great player who's going to be a great teammate," Schaffer said. "The fans of the Redskins are going to get a great soldier on the field and a great citizen in the community. And the media is going to get someone that's going to help you guys do what you do. It's going to be a win-win situation."

In seeking out a veteran tailback, Shanahan also considered Willie Parker, the free agent from Pittsburgh who visited with coaches at Redskins Park on Monday.

Johnson had a scheduled visit with the Oakland Raiders that he had to cancel. For him, it apparently was an easy decision to sign with the Redskins.

"Looking at all the options that were out there, the key, number one, was that he was born in Washington," Schaffer said. "He grew up there and he was a Redskins fan. And number two, when you look at Mike Shanahan's offense and the history what he's done for running backs, Terrell Davis, Mike Anderson, Clinton Portis . . . it's a great place to be a running back. There's no doubt about it.."

Staff writer Jason Reid contributed to this report.

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