Chiefs' Johnson on precipice of franchise tackles record
KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) The first tackle that Derrick Johnson made in the NFL didn't even count.
It was Sept. 11, 2005, and the Chiefs were playing the New York Jets. Chad Pennington had taken the snap and handed off to Curtis Martin, who was bottled up by Johnson and fellow Chiefs linebacker Kawika Mitchell. But thanks to a holding penalty, that play never went in the record books.
No matter. Johnson made plenty of other stops over the years.
Now, as the Chiefs prepare to face the Denver Broncos on Thursday night, the seemingly ageless Johnson is seven tackles away from 1,000, which would pass Gary Spani for the franchise record.
Not only that, but he's continued to make plays in the middle of the Kansas City defense just one year after a season-ending Achilles injury led some to question whether he would be back.
''It's important when I go home and sleep at night,'' Johnson said of the record. ''I have seven left, but there's a couple times during the year you get five tackles. Sometimes I have 13 or 14 in a game. I hope it's one of those. It'll be refreshing after the fact that it's broke.''
Such records are a rarity in the NFL these days.
Not many players perform at such a high level over an extended period of time, and free agency means that those precious few often spend their careers with multiple organizations.
For every Jessie Tuggle with the Falcons, or Ray Lewis with the Ravens, there's London Fletcher or Hardy Nickerson, who each compiled more than 1,000 tackles playing for four franchises.
''To reach a record like that, I think, demonstrates the fact that he's played very well for a long period of time,'' Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said. ''He's very active, and you have to have great instincts to make that many tackles.''
Johnson has always had those instincts, beginning with his days as a kid playing on the dusty fields of Waco, Texas, to the four years he spent starring for the University of Texas.
They didn't always serve him quite so well.
His stellar college career made him a first-round draft pick. But by his fifth season, he'd fallen out of favor with a new coaching staff in Kansas City, even losing his starting job.
Rather than mope, he redoubled his efforts. And for five-plus seasons, Johnson started every game he played, right up until last year's opener in Tennessee.
On a play just before halftime, he felt his ankle give out with nobody around him. Johnson didn't know it at the time, but he had just torn his Achilles tendon, his season over just a handful of tackles shy of Spani's record.
Some wondered whether Johnson would spend a grueling year of rehab or call it a career, though that question never crossed his mind. He threw himself into the work required to make it back by training camp, and was on the field for last Sunday's opener in Houston.
He responded by making eight tackles and a sack in a vintage performance.
''All linebackers are different. They kind of put their stamp on how they play,'' Chiefs coach Andy Reid said, ''and Derrick is a smart player, a downhill player. He's a good-sized guy, but he's able to get small and low and be very effective.''
So effective that he's leapfrogged most everybody else in franchise history, from Derrick Thomas to Donnie Edwards to Deron Cherry. His performance against the Texans pushed him past Art Still and into second place with 993 tackles, and put Spani's record squarely in his sights.
''It's a mark of professionalism and consistency,'' said Spani, now a member of the Chiefs front office. ''It's been fun to watch him grow. He just has the right approach.''
Johnson said the record will speak for itself, answering the myriad questions people have had over the years: Is he tough enough? Durable enough? Reliable?
''It's a blessing to be able to get to that point to say, `Man, I have a chance to be at the top of that list,''' Johnson said. ''Regardless of how many years I've been here, I have a chance to be at the top of that list. That's pretty awesome.''
NOTES: Reid said RT Jah Reid would get the majority of snaps in practice Wednesday, though Eric Fisher (high ankle sprain) is improving. ... DT Dontari Poe (back surgery) came out of the opener vs Houston healthy, though Reid declined to say whether Poe would play more snaps vs Denver.
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