Ram Notebook : Johnson, the Leader, Jumps for Joy About His New Role in Secondary

Times Staff Writer

Lunch break at Ram training camp is usually a time of rest, of cafeteria food and cat naps. A morning practice is over; a late afternoon workout awaits. Energy conservation becomes the craze around noon.

So why, then, is Johnnie Johnson acting as if he’d just swallowed a box of puppy uppers? He’s smiling. He’s laughing. He’s working the room like Wayne Newton, going from table to table, visiting with the younger Rams and rookies--"The kids,” he said--playing the part of a regular good-will ambassador.

This is the new and improved Johnson--again. Healthy, his starting free safety position ensured once more, Johnson, 31, is bopping around as if someone had slipped clouds under his feet. Even Coach John Robinson stopped him in the middle of the cafeteria Wednesday, telling Johnson, “You’re flying around.”

In Robinson-ese, that means the coach is especially pleased with Johnson’s speed and quickness in recent practices, that everyone has seen the effort and that Johnson should keep up the good work. That sort of thing.


To which Johnson answers: “That makes me feel good. But I’ve always done that. That’s me. I know no other way.”

Maybe so, but things finally have quieted enough around Ram camp these days for people to notice the revitalized Johnson. Think about it: The Eric Dickerson saga is long over. The National Football League players’ strike is history. LeRoy Irvin’s contract melodrama is a comical memory. Injuries have yet to find Johnson’s ankle or knee or any other part of his lean body.

And this week came news of 11-year veteran Nolan Cromwell’s decision to leave the Rams and search for a starting safety position. Suddenly, Johnson and Irvin become the deans of the Ram secondary, in charge of leadership and the responsibilities that go with it. Johnson doesn’t mind a bit.

“The loss of a Nolan Cromwell makes me wise up,” Johnson said. “Nolan was one of the great leaders of the team. He was the senior person. (His release) gives me the opportunity to become the leader that I should.”


Johnson wasn’t overjoyed to see Cromwell leave. The two had been teammates since 1980 and nurtured a close friendship during that time. Johnson said he remembers waiting for Cromwell to complain when coaches switched him from free to strong safety in 1983, a move that enabled Johnson to earn All-NFL honors at free safety that year. The angry words never came.

Johnson said he remembers Cromwell’s leadership by example--a tired phrase, but appropriate in this case, he said.

“Nolan was always there,” Johnson said. “He set the standard by which all safeties went by.”

Cromwell is not at Ram camp anymore. At last check, the Seattle Seahawks were interested, but who knows? If that doesn’t work out, there’s always the Rams’ standing offer of a one-year position as an assistant coach.

In a sense, Cromwell fell victim to time. It also didn’t help that man-to-man coverage was a weakness of sorts. Under this new-look Ram defense, versatility is cherished. Cromwell, intelligent and well versed in zone work, was noticeably out of place. And just in case he wasn’t aware of the Ram priorities, the coaches dropped him to a backup position--way back.

“There are certain strong suits that we have,” Johnson said. “Nolan would be the first to tell you that he’s not (the type of player) to cover those type of situations. He’s not going to be able to go out and cover a wide receiver man-to-man on a consistent basis.”

Which is why Cromwell gracefully departed the premises and Johnson is talking about a Ram resurgence and maybe a Pro Bowl appearance for himself.

“A lot of times, a picture is painted, and as a veteran ballplayer you can pretty much fill in the blank spots,” Johnson said. “It’s almost like putting together a puzzle. You’ve got certain parts there, and then you have to fit in the other parts.”


For Cromwell, that meant the end of what the Rams called the “Cromwell era.” For Johnson, it meant a full-time position without the uncertainty of last season--both on and off the field. It also meant accepting more duties.

Now if a problem arises in the Ram secondary, Johnson and Irvin act as liaisons between the rest of the defensive backs and position coach Steve Shafer.

“I have a lot more responsibility now than I have in the past,” Johnson said.

He said that now he doesn’t fret over the shuttle system the Ram coaches employed in the secondary in 1987. Nor does he worry about last-minute shifts: fill-in cornerback one day . . . sometime safety the next.

“When you come to camp, it always helps to know, ‘This is the position where I’ll line up,’ or ‘This is where I ought to be.’ If I play well and play consistent, I’ll play this position (free safety).

“I think competition is great, but as a veteran player, you want to line up and you say, ‘OK, I know what I have to do to man this position.’ ”

Mostly, Johnson has to show up for work each day, something he relishes. Already he talks about the Rams re-establishing themselves as contenders. He talks about championships and personal goals--lofty ones, too, such as all-pro, Pro Bowl and whatever’s left. Johnson said he is “totally focused” on the 1988 season. And you believe him.

The good mood gives it away.


Ram Notes

Ross Browner, a former Cincinnati Bengal and Green Bay Packer defensive end, will be the Rams’ newest addition as soon as contract details are worked out. Browner, a free agent, arrived at training camp Wednesday and brought with him enough optimism and good will to last the summer. He said he always has wanted to be a Ram. He liked the team colors, the memories of James Harris and Roman Gabriel, the Fearsome Foursome and, better yet, the fact that his astrological sign--Aries--is, ta-da, a ram. Browner, 34, also was pleased to learn that three Ram defensive linemen (Shawn Miller, Greg Meisner and Doug Reed) are AWOL because of contract disputes. “I know I still can play this game,” Browner said. The Rams aren’t arguing. They need defensive linemen, although Coach John Robinson said Browner’s appearance was related to other players’ holdouts. “He’s a guy we think has a legitimate chance to make the team,” he said. Robinson even kidded that the situation might require Browner to play as soon as Saturday’s Hall of Fame game in Canton, Ohio. “Like, ‘Glad to have you, now get in there, Ross.’ ”

Running back Gaston Green suffered a thigh bruise Tuesday and may be unavailable for the Canton trip. He didn’t practice Wednesday. . . . Another punter signed up for tryout duty Wednesday, this one Kevin Brown of West Texas State. Brown last worked for the Chicago Bear strike team. With Dale Hatcher sidelined by a knee injury, the Rams have an open-door policy. “You’ll probably drive down the streets and see the signs out,” joked Robinson. “ ‘Wanted: Punter. Trip to Canton. Round trip . . . maybe.’ ” . . . The Rams will take 69 or 70 players of their 91 to the Hall of Fame game. Those who will stay home include rookie cornerbacks Anthony Newman and Darren Lambert, Hatcher, fullback Donald Evans, offensive lineman Robert Cox, tight end Pete Holohan and Jeff Knapton. Blame injuries. Defensive end Gary Jeter (back spasms) and cornerback Cliff Hicks (flu) also might be left behind. . . . It’s official: Robinson said his starters won’t play more than one quarter of Saturday’s game. . . . Ron Brown footnote: Robinson said the Rams would prefer a first-round pick for the sprinter/former wide receiver. (Wouldn’t everyone?) A third-round choice would be too low, a second rounder, possibly. . . . Talk about a good excuse to miss a day’s worth of training camp each week: Bengal linebacker Reggie Williams, a 13-year veteran from Dartmouth, is excused once a week to serve on the Cincinnati city council.