Ravens lose their rock in Jarret Johnson

The Ravens let a good one get away yesterday when Jarret Johnson signed a four-year deal with the San Diego Chargers.

Sure, that's business in the NFL, where the start of the free agency period tends to take on all the calm of the opening bell on Wall Street. But you don't replace classy players like Johnson every day.

Not only was he a solid, if unspectacular, run-stopping linebacker, he was one of the Ravens quiet leaders and a calming influence, especially before big games, when the locker room was vibrating with tension and anxiety.

When I asked Terrell Suggs last year about the hierarchy of leadership on the Ravens, he quickly said: "Well, it goes Ray (Lewis) and Ed (Reed). And then after that it's me and J.J. and Haloti (Ngata.)"

Stoic, unflappable and sturdy as they come, Johnson started every game for the Ravens the past four seasons. He played in 130 straight games, a team record. It would take a bone popping out of the skin to sideline the guy, and maybe even that wouldn't do it.

NFL people love to toss around the term "blue-collar" to describe guys like Johnson: tough, no-nonsense players who do their job well day after day without whining and drama. But that was Jarret Johnson, all right. He was -- and is -- the very definition of the term.

I still carry the memory of how serene Johnson was in the Ravens locker room on the Friday before their playoff game with the Houston Texans last season.

Some of the younger Ravens -- I remember Tom ZbikowskiHaruki Nakamura and Vonta Leach were involved -- had started this dopey game of dunking footballs on the heads of unsuspecting media members. They thought it was a real hoot, a way of working off nervous energy and keeping the team loose before a big game.

(Of course, we in the media thought it was their way of trying to intimidate us and make us look foolish, always a favorite pastime in NFL locker rooms. Thin-skinned? Paranoid? Us? Nah.)

But that day, I happened to be talking to Jarret Johnson when the media-dunking broke out. Looking out at the howling chaos breaking out around him, Johnson wore a bemused expression. Then he shook his head softly and murmured: "I'm not getting involved in that."

The unspoken message to the young players was clear: Act like you've played in big games before. Act like a pro.

That was Jarret Johnson in his time in Baltimore: the consummate professional football player.

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