Jarret Johnson still grimaces when he thinks about it.
For as long as he could remember, he'd been a strong guy. Some of it was country strength, the kind of muscles you build when you grow up in in a small Florida town on the Gulf of Mexico, raised by a family of commercial crabbers and fisherman. But he could always hold his own in the weight room, too, moving metal plates with relative ease as he out-worked much bigger guys on his way to an NFL career.
But at the start of the 2010 season, for the first time in Johnson's life, he would ask his body to do power through workouts, and it would simply refuse. He would lay on a bench in the Ravens' weight room and struggle to bench press multiple reps of 185 pounds. When he was drafted by the Ravens out of the University of Alabama in 2003, he could breeze through 20 reps of 225 pounds and barely break a sweat.
"It was tough," Johnson said. "I admit, going into the season and knowing I wasn't where I'd been in the past, I was a little worried."
It wasn't hard to diagnose the problem. In 2009, Johnson injured his shoulder during training camp, but he was able to continue playing at a high level and postpone surgery until the off-season. When he finally went under the knife to repair a torn labrum, it meant putting his arm in a sling for six weeks. Doctors gave him a clean bill of health prior to 2010, but he was 20 pounds under his normal playing weight of 265 because he hadn't been able to train for so long.
Johnson still made plays — he had a career best 73 tackles — but he wasn't as explosive as he'd been in previous years. After recording six sacks in 2009, and leading the team in that category, he had just 1.5 in 2010. When the Ravens' pass rush struggled to get consistent pressure last season, and the defense surrendered several fourth-quarter leads, Johnson became a convenient target for frustrated fans.
When the Ravens released a corps group of aging veterans after the lockout ended, rumors swirled that Johnson would be among those given his walking papers.
"Any time you're a veteran guy, you're going to worry," Johnson said this week as the Ravens prepared for Monday night's game against the Jacksonville Jaguars. "I certainly called my agent when I heard who was getting released to see if I was going to be OK. But the Ravens called right away and said, 'Don't worry about it, you're cool.' "
Whether the Ravens even mulled cutting Johnson is hard to say, but they certainly have to be happy with their decision at the moment. Through five games, Johnson has looked as good as he has in several years, and his upper-body strength appears to have returned in full. Against the Texans last week, he had one of his best games in a long time, racking up seven tackles and sack.
"We're out there healthy and you feel good, it's so much more fun," Johnson said. "When your shoulders are banged up and your back hurts, every game is a grind. It's an absolute grind."
Johnson continues to be one of the most important cogs in the Ravens' defense for both his brains and his versatility. He's the rare player who can pressure the quarterback, run with a tight end in coverage and take on offensive lineman on the perimeter, often holding his edge and forcing running backs to cut back into the flow of pursuit. Against the Texans, he was particularly good at not letting running back Arian Foster bounce plays to the outside.
"Even when he had his shoulder thing, he was a great player," Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "Now that he has two good shoulders again, he's being a lot more dominant. I think people are starting to appreciate him a lot more. We've always appreciated Double-J, but now the media and fans are starting to realize how good he is. He's the brains for us out there. He gets everyone lined up properly. I've always valued the guy."
It's probably safe to say that had the Ravens decided to part ways with Johnson, he wouldn't have been waiting by the phone for very long. To this day, he remains one of the favorite players of New York Jets coach Rex Ryan.
"I'll tell you a guy that's underrated is Jarret Johnson," Ryan said recently. "I mean, he's had that label forever. We used to laugh about it. He's always a 'hard-working, blue-collar guy.' Well, that's what he is. He's tougher than heck, but he's a lot more talented than people give him credit for. He's playing great."
Johnson chuckles at the way he's always been characterized. Yes, he heard some of the criticism from fans who said he didn't have it anymore. It just didn't feel like anything new.
"I'm so used it it," Johnson said, shaking his head. "I signed a 5-year deal in 2007, and the week after I signed my deal, I remember reading a big story about how we had to find someone opposite of Suggs to replace [Adalius Thomas]. It's always been like that. That's fine. I don't worry about it. You get used to hearing 'Oh, he's a good player, but we've got to find somebody else.' "
Part of the way Johnson is viewed, at least he believes, comes from those football fans who seem to think the ideal defense needs to have Dwight Freeney rushing the passer on one end, and Robert Mathis rushing the passer from the other side.
"That's what fans want because that's what they understand, two guys getting 11 or 12 sacks," Johnson said. "And I understand that. Because if you're not in meetings and you're not watching film, then they only thing you can judge someone off of is stats. Well, I haven't had a lot of stats. But I don't sweat it because I know I'm doing my job."
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