The Kansas City Chiefs are moving on from Derrick Johnson after 13 years. His legacy is one of greatness, but also a gnawing feeling of emptiness.
Every great player retires, and precious few do it with coveted jewelry on their finger. Over the NFL’s history, there have been scores of Hall of Famers who have come and gone, never to reach the sport’s ultimate pinnacle. For every John Elway ending, there are hundreds of Warren Moon goodbyes.
On Tuesday, the Chiefs announced their parting of ways with longtime middle linebacker Derrick Johnson. Johnson, who says he plans to continue playing, will chase that ring elsewhere. If there’s any justice, he’ll get it.
After tearing his Achilles in Week 1 of the 2014 season, Johnson triumphantly returned in ’15 to reach his fourth Pro Bowl. He earned Second-Team All-Pro honors, notching 95 tackles and four sacks. The following December, Johnson tore his other Achilles, and try as he might, the Chiefs’ all-time leader in tackles couldn’t rebound. In what was a sad ending to a great career in the heartland, Johnson registered 45 tackles in 15 games.
Johnson, 35, is one of the greatest linebackers who will never get consideration for the Hall of Fame. He spent his first four years playing out of position, tried as an outside linebacker. Once moved to the inside as a full-time starter in 2010, Johnson blossomed. He reached four Pro Bowls in five seasons, including First-Team All-Pro honors in 2011.
Unfortunately, the nation never got to see much of his talents. From his draft year of 2005, his first eight seasons were met with one playoff appearance. His quarterback that afternoon was Matt Cassel. Starting in ’13, the Chiefs raised their collective profile behind head coach Andy Reid, reaching the playoffs four times in five years. Whether due to meltdown or dark comedy, Kansas City won exactly one game in those trips.
The lone win was a 30-0 smashing of the Houston Texans, won in Johnson’s home town.
For more than a decade, Johnson exuded class and grace, power and fury. He was everything a team could want from it’s defensive captain, both on and away from the field. Johnson is well-known for his philanthropy in Kansas City, using his foundation, Defend The Dream, to help low-income families to survive and thrive.
Still, the Chiefs aren’t wrong for moving on from Johnson, but it’s bittersweet all the same. He was due $8 million this season, and while his past was brilliant, his future likely isn’t. Kansas City is cash-strapped, and that savings will go toward the defense getting younger and faster across all three levels.
Yet in totality, Johnson’s career in Kansas City was phenomenal. When he decided to hang up his cleats, he will be honored at Arrowhead Stadium with his name going in the Ring of Honor, his bust in the team’s Hall of Fame. It’s even a possibility that nobody ever wears No. 56 for the Chiefs again.
The last time we will ever see Johnson in a Chiefs uniform was in a Wild Card loss against the Tennessee Titans. The final image forever to be Johnson picking up a Derrick Henry and running unmolested into the end zone, thunderous applause at his back. It was the game-winning score, the moment both man and team had waiting for. Then, cruelly but correctly, it was called back.
For Johnson, he deserved so much more than a legacy of greatness buttressed by franchise futility. Unfortunately, though, the NFL is no fairy tale, even for the greats.