The winds of change, blowing briskly through Anaheim these days, swept out another Ram Wednesday when veteran free safety Johnnie Johnson announced that he was taking the money and running his 32-year-old body to the Seattle Seahawks.
Johnson, a nine-year veteran and a mainstay of the Ram secondary for nearly a decade, has agreed to terms with the Seahawks on a two-year contract. Johnson was one of 19 Ram players left unprotected last month when the National Football League loosened its chokehold on the terms of “free agency.” Johnson, thus, was free to negotiate with any team and was not subject to compensation. Terms of his deal were not immediately known, though he will reportedly earn at least double his annual Ram salary of $200,000, which Johnson was to receive this year and next. His total package, including reachable incentives, could be worth in excess of $500,000 a season.
It was an offer Johnson couldn’t refuse.
“I would have been really disappointed if I would have played 10 or 12 years and never got the chance to at least test the free-agent market once,” Johnson said. “I was lucky enough to come off a good enough year where there were teams that were interested in me.”
Of course, it wasn’t as easy as that. Johnson said he anguished over his decision to leave the Rams, mostly because his roots are firmly entrenched in Orange County, where Johnson has recently married and started his own real estate company.
“I have strong feelings for the Ram organization,” Johnson said. “I have strong feelings for (owner) Georgia (Frontiere). I feel I’ve got one of the better images of any athlete around here. I’d like to thank the fans and the coaching staff for being as great as they have to me in my nine years. But I’ll be down here to play the Raiders.”
The Rams could have prevented Johnson’s escape by including him among the 37 players they were allowed to protect. They chose not to, gambling that Johnson’s age and community ties would keep him in Anaheim.
“I can see why they did it,” Johnson said. “But it backfired. It didn’t work out for them.”
The Rams didn’t seem quite so stunned.
“It was expected,” Ram Coach John Robinson said from the NFL owners meeting at Palm Desert. “Johnnie was nearing the end of his career. This is a real opportunity for him. When players come to the end of their careers, sometimes a new environment is a catalyst for them. He’s been a great Ram, and a great guy. It’s probably in his best interests. We expected him to have offers. He’s still got some quality years left in him.”
The Rams are presently in the roster-clearing business, having to make room for five more first- or second-round draft choices again this summer. As Johnson moves out, James Washington, 24, and Michael Stewart, 23, form the line that leads to his vacated job.
Still, Johnson started all 16 games at free safety for the Rams last season and even played cornerback in a pinch. He led the team with four interceptions and was the team’s third-leading tackler with 47.
Johnson said he gravitated to the Seahawks. The first attraction was Chuck Knox, the former Ram coach, who holds nothing against players born in the 1950s.
“Knox loves veterans, and I can still run,” Johnson said. “That had the biggest impact on them.”
The second incentive was the Seahawks’ recent hiring of former Raider coach Tom Flores to run the team’s football operations. And the clincher? Seattle’s defensive backs coach is none other than Rod Perry, the former Ram cornerback and Johnson’s close friend.
“If somebody gave me deck of cards, I couldn’t have picked a better hand,” Johnson said. “And I’m confident they’re only a couple of players away (from the Super Bowl).”
Johnson created quite a stir in 1980 when the Rams made the University of Texas star the 15th pick in the NFL draft. His six-year, million-dollar contract prompted the famous training-camp holdouts of angered veterans Jack and Jim Youngblood, Larry Brooks and Dennis Harrah. Johnson, though, soon proved his worth and became one of the team’s most consistent players of the decade.
Johnson played strong safety until Robinson arrived in 1983 and switched him to free safety.
“I owe quite a few things to Coach Robinson,” Johnson said. “He allowed me to become the player I am. He made the move from strong to free; it was the best move anyone could have made for me. And he did not hesitate to move me to corner, which allowed people to see what I could do.”
Johnson had perhaps his best season in 1983, when he made some All-Pro teams. He leaves the Rams with 21 career interceptions.
“It’ll be weird, not being a Ram,” Johnson said. “But that’s something I’ll get used to. I played here nine years. But this is an excellent opportunity for me. They expect big things out of me.”
Johnnie Johnson becomes the seventh unprotected Ram to sign with another NFL team, upstaging reserve cornerback Mickey Sutton, who said Wednesday that he has agreed to a two-year deal with the Green Bay Packers. Sutton, who earned $115,000 last season, said he will more than double his salary with the Packers. Sutton will also be asked to return punts. But what about that weather, Mick? “The snow doesn’t bother me,” he said. “I’ll still keep my place in Irvine. I couldn’t let weather hinder my decision.” If you’ve lost track, other Rams lost to free agency were receiver Michael Young (Denver); defensive linemen Gary Jeter (New England), Greg Meisner (Kansas City) and Fred Stokes (Washington); tight end Jon Embree (Seattle), and running back Keith Jones (Cleveland). That leaves 11 unprotected Rams with seven shopping days left in free agency. All deals must be completed by April 1. The remaining free agents are linebackers Jim Collins, Carl Ekern and Mark Jerue, quarterback Mark Herrmann, running backs Charles White, Tim Tyrrell, Buford McGee and Mike Guman, tackle Mike Schad, tight end Eric Sievers and snapper Mike McDonald.