The Kansas City Chiefs led the Tennessee Titans, 14-0, in the AFC divisional round game back in early January with less than three minutes to go in the second quarter.
Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota and his offense hadn’t done anything against the Chiefs defense all half, and they lined up out of the shotgun on their own side of the field trying to get something, anything going before the break.
Mariota snapped the ball, and 35-year-old Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson saw a wide open lane just to the righthand side of Titans left tackle Taylor Lewan.
Johnson streaked toward the quarterback. Boom. Sack.
Marcus Mariota CRUSHED on sack by Derrick Johnson pic.twitter.com/BChNRgCX1D— BLACK SPORTSCENTER (@VersaceBoyEnt) January 6, 2018
It being a game televised on ESPN, his last as a color commentator, Jon Gruden broke down the play.
“I have no idea how they block him,” Gruden said of Johnson on the broadcast. “I have no idea what Derrick Henry was looking at, and that’s where you miss DeMarco Murray. You blow a pickup against Derrick Johnson and you’re going to pay for it.”
Gruden’s words came before referee Jeff Triplette would confirm one of the most preposterous forward progress calls in NFL history, before the Titans would roar back in the second half, before Gruden would officially join the Oakland Raiders as head coach and before Chiefs general manager Brett Veach would tell Johnson that he was no longer welcomed on the team.
It was the final significant play in 13 seasons in Kansas City for Johnson, the franchise’s leader in tackles. And no one could have told you this at the time, but Gruden’s complimentary breakdown was the first sign of things to come.
Johnson agreed to a one-year deal worth up to $3 million (according to Yahoo! Sports), last Friday to join the Chiefs’ most hated rival—the Oakland Raiders.
He ran out to the practice field wearing silver and black for the first time on Monday, and on Wednesday, he joined Andrew Siciliano for an interview on NFL Network’s Up to the Minute.
"I look pretty good in silver and black right now."— Andrew Siciliano (@AndrewSiciliano) May 9, 2018
It will take a while to get used to seeing @superdj56 in a Raiders uniform.@nflnetwork #UpToTheMinute pic.twitter.com/NN6SCWOkcg
Siciliano’s first question for Johnson was one we were all wondering—What was it like running around in a Raiders uniform?
“You know what? It [takes] some getting used to, but I’ll tell you what. I look pretty good in the silver and black right now,” Johnson said with a smile. “It’s an opportunity that I’m excited about. Can’t wait to get out there.”
Opportunity is all Johnson every really wanted this past offseason, when he told 610 Sports in mid-February he still intended to play for years to come.
“The fire still burns in me to make big plays, to help out young guys around me, to be that general where you’re setting up everything,” Johnson said at the time. “Knowing the defense, making sure you anticipate to make plays and being that guy that the coach says, ‘This guy’s expectation is higher than what the coaches put on him,’ which is a big deal.
“When that goes down, I’ll get out of the league, but right now, I still want to play, so I’m still going to pursue trying to win a championship, because that’s all I’m playing for now.”
Unfortunately for Johnson, Veach and the Chiefs had their mind set in another direction—and that was to move on and get younger.
Johnson told his agent he would have taken a lot less money to stay in Kansas City. Andy Reid offered him a coaching job.
So on March 14, to the open market Johnson went, and after considering what he told Siciliano were three or four offers, he landed with Gruden in Oakland.
The difference among the offers was that Gruden and the Raiders came to Johnson with a vision for how they could maximize his use at his current age and skill level.
“The biggest thing was the Raiders had more of a plan for me,” Johnson said. “At this age, when you have a plan for a guy that’s 35 years old, that’s an opportunity that you have to look into more. And meeting the coaching staff and meeting everybody here in the organization, I’ve always had respect for the Raiders, even though I’ve wanted to tear their heads off playing for KC, but just having that utmost respect for them, a great organization, glad to be here.”
For Johnson, signing with Oakland was never about sticking it to the Chiefs; it was much simpler than that.
Reid, Veach and the Chiefs really, really didn’t want him anymore, and Gruden and the Raiders? They really, really did.
“Look, I’ve known Derrick a while,” Gruden said after the signing. “He brings us status at a critical position. He’s got a great history in this league. He’s been productive under a lot of different coaches, different schemes. He understands the AFC West, he certainly understands this rivalry, and I’m really excited to add him to this team with Tahir Whitehead and some of these young linebackers. I think his presence will be very valuable.”
Gruden’s initial meeting with Johnson included a study of the Raiders playbook and the 4-3 defensive scheme as a whole. Johnson had been playing in the Chiefs’ 3-4 scheme since the team changed over in 2009.
After meeting with Gruden, Johnson felt he would fit in with the Raiders just fine, also relishing the fact that he and his new head coach share a deep love for the game.
“He doesn’t change,” Johnson said of Gruden. “He’s a guy that’s very intense, very motivated by football, and he wants to win. His sense of urgency to win is a big reason of why I signed on the dotted line because I frankly told him, ‘I’m not here for a rebuilding type of deal. I’m here to chase a ring and to do it with a bunch of young guys.’”
The Chiefs host Oakland at Arrowhead Stadium this season Week 17, marking Johnson’s return to Kansas City as a Raider.
He’s already anticipating his return.
“Man, this is going to be something see,” he said. “Regardless of what happens, it’s going to be a great time to go back to a place where I put heart, blood, sweat and tears there, and they will respect me and they will introduce me well, but I’ll get some boos.
“That’s OK. I play for the silver and black. I expect that, but at the same time, I’m there for one reason—to play football at a high level, to help my team win.”
That’s all Johnson was ever about, and that’s why he is loved and should remain loved in this city.
Just like Brett Favre to the Minnesota Vikings and Emmitt Smith to the Arizona Cardinals, Johnson to the Oakland Raiders is an unfortunate-but-temporary rental.
No one expects him to be cheered at Arrowhead this season, nor should he be.
But regardless of the uniform he’ll wear for the next seven months, Johnson is a Kansas City legend, a future member of the Ring of Honor and a forever Chief.
That last fact will never change.