Until the Washington Redskins contacted his agent eight days ago, the NFL was out of sight, out of mind, for Tre Johnson. He didn't think his playing career was over, but he wasn't counting on it resuming this season, either. He hadn't so much as watched a pro football game on television all season.
But then Redskins officials, finally tired of watching defensive tackles overpower the patchwork middle of their offensive line, told agent Greg Ray they just might want Johnson, their former Pro Bowl guard, at Redskins Park on Monday. So Johnson tuned in to the Redskins' loss last Sunday at Green Bay, and saw that his help was needed when the Packers sacked rookie quarterback Patrick Ramsey six times.
Johnson indeed was summoned Monday to the Redskins' training facility in Ashburn from his home in Mitchellville. The Redskins rushed him through a physical and a workout that had been scheduled for Tuesday, and by that evening he had signed a contract for the remainder of the season and was standing in front of some camera- and notepad-brandishing reporters. "I'd have had my hair looking better if I had known I was going to be on TV," Johnson said.
Coach Steve Spurrier plans for Johnson to get extended playing time at right guard in Sunday night's game against the Indianapolis Colts in relief of Wilbert Brown, who is filling in for injured starter Brenden Stai.
Edward Stanton Johnson III is three years removed from being a Pro Bowl selection, and his NFL career has disintegrated since then into overcoming one injury after another. Knee injuries limited him to seven games over the previous two seasons, and he joined the Redskins admittedly out of football-playing shape and having to take a crash course on Spurrier's offense. Yet he is the closest thing that the Redskins have at this point to a savior for their offensive line, and he said that has rejoined the team to play, not stand around on the sideline. His goal, he said, is to be in the club's starting lineup soon.
"That's my ambition," said Johnson, who spent last season with the Cleveland Browns. "That's my goal. I don't come here to watch. . . . I think it's the hardest position, period. You hear about the speed rushers and everything, but those big defensive tackles are where it's at. Blocking them, that's a hard job to do. But I'm coming here to be that guy."
The middle of the offensive line has been in flux since former coach Marty Schottenheimer released Johnson and fellow starting guard Keith Sims prior to last season. A torn anterior cruciate ligament ended Johnson's 2000 season after four games, and Schottenheimer was facing a salary cap crunch.
The Redskins signed Dave Szott and Ben Coleman to start at guard last season, but neither was re-signed. The guard spots have been trouble areas this season while Spurrier's offense often has sputtered, and now the Redskins hope that Johnson can stay healthy and regain something resembling the overpowering form that put him in the Pro Bowl in 1999. Johnson maintains that he can be that player again.
"Heck yes," he said. "As long as people stop falling on the back of my legs, I'll be fine. I've never pulled a muscle running. I played sick. I played hurt. I've never been hit by the bus I saw coming. Just keep them off my legs."
Few NFL people have questioned Johnson's ability since the Redskins selected him in the second round of the 1994 draft out of Temple. He always has been a big man who could move well and liked to bang heads, a bulldozing blocker for a team's running game. But Redskins coaches and front-office members spent years wondering whether Johnson could overcome shoulder ailments and battling with him to practice harder and more often.
Those worries were shoved aside in '99, when Johnson became a dominating force for a team that won the NFC East title and reached the second round of the playoffs. He also became a locker-room leader, getting ejected from the Redskins' first-round playoff triumph over the Detroit Lions at FedEx Field that season when he inadvertently struck a referee during an on-field fight with Detroit players that began with Johnson taking up for his quarterback, Brad Johnson.
Tre Johnson's knee injury in 2000 was a major setback for a team with a nearly $100 million player payroll and Super Bowl aspirations that finished with an 8-8 record and missed the playoffs. Johnson signed with the Browns but lasted only three games last year before undergoing season-ending surgery. Doctors found that he had torn his quadriceps muscle where it attaches to his right knee.
He was working his way back for this season when he suffered a sprained medial collateral ligament during a scrimmage. He figured he would be healthy a few games into the regular season, he said, but he complied with a request by the Browns' coaches that he participate in a few plays in two preseason games so that he wouldn't get too rusty. Cleveland released him before the season. Under NFL rules, Johnson could not have been released if he was hurt and not playing, but he said he isn't bitter.
"The writing was on the wall," Johnson said. "When you've been around long enough, you can see when that subtle hammer is coming. You just try to look good on film, and use it as an audition. Hopefully somebody else is going to be pleased with your performance, enough to give you another opportunity."
He weighed in at a standard-for-him 326 pounds this week. He says his knees "feel good" and his shoulders haven't bothered him for four or five years. But he concedes that riding a stationary bike and lifting weights, as he was doing in the weeks before signing with the Redskins, are not sufficient to be in condition to play an NFL game.
"To push another 300-pound man around against his will, that's a deep task," said Johnson, whose contract would pay him about $382,000 -- a prorated portion of the minimum salary of $650,000 for players of his experience level -- if he stays with the Redskins for the remainder of the season.
He was surprised Monday when Spurrier remembered him from coaching him in a college all-star game. He immediately got to work learning Spurrier's offense. It's not that the plays are all brand-new, Johnson says. He has played in the NFL long enough to have seen just about everything a guard can be asked to do. But when a play is called, he must translate the jargon of Spurrier's offense into the terminology for the comparable play in one of the offensive systems in which he has played. Then it clicks in his mind what he's supposed to do.
He played each guard spot during his previous Redskins tenure. But he most recently was a right guard, and Redskins offensive line coach Kim Helton says the club will try him there. Stai likely will miss a second straight game because of a case of patella tendinitis in his left knee. Brown is penciled in to start, but Helton concedes that he could have little choice but to turn to Johnson at some point against the Colts.
"Sometimes I think we're giving Tre a little too much attention," Helton said. "It's not fair to Tre to throw the offense and this whole package on him. He's been out there for a few days. He hasn't practiced or done anything for two months. But certainly there's some want-to there. There's some ability. He's a heavy guy. He's got some thump. He's a pretty good pass blocker."
He still commands respect at Redskins Park, with long snapper Ethan Albright switching to No. 67 upon Johnson's arrival so that Johnson could wear his old No. 77. "Tre was here a long time and had Pro Bowl years, and I felt like he deserved it," Albright said.
Coaches and players have moved in and out of Redskins Park since Johnson's departure. Even the Wal-Mart around the corner was torn down, Johnson pointed out. But if Johnson proves that he can bowl over defenders the way he used to, there once again is a place for him.
"This is a finite dream," Johnson said. "It's not like being a lawyer and giving up law to go be an artist. If it doesn't work out, you can go back to law. Football, you can only do it for so long. I want to maximize it until I can't do it any more, until I can't walk and they throw me out and tell me I can never play football again. Then I'll stop."