For a guy who doesn’t have a lot of time to spend looking back, Josh Johnson certainly knows where he’s been. And he can tell you about it, in rapid-fire fashion, and precise chronological order.
“You want the UFL, too?” Johnson said this week, when I asked the newest Buffalo Bills quarterback if he could recite from memory his many stops in the NFL from 2008 to now.
“Tampa Bay, San Francisco, the Sacramento Mountain Lions, Cleveland Browns, Cincinnati Bengals, San Francisco 49ers, Cincinnati Bengals, New York Jets, Indianapolis Colts and now the Buffalo Bills,” Johnson said calmly. “Well, if you want to be technical about it, twice with the Colts.”
If you’re scoring at home, that’s the definitive definition of a mobile quarterback. I visited the Bengals’ training camp for a couple days in August and watched Johnson work with Cincinnati’s third-string offense, but heck, that was three teams ago for the 29-year-old who was selected by the Bucs in the fifth round of the 2008 draft. In the span of less than seven weeks this summer and early fall, Johnson has spent time on the rosters of four different clubs, providing depth when the Jets lost Geno Smith to a broken jaw, when the Colts saw Andrew Luck miss two games, and now, when the Bills are facing the uncertainty of whether starting quarterback Tyrod Taylor will be able to play through a knee injury suffered last week at Tennessee.
In the NFL version of the Ghostbusters jingle, the “who ya gonna call?” refrain would be answered by “Josh Johnson!”
“It’s crazy,” Johnson said by phone on Thursday afternoon, after another day of crash-course diving into the Bills playbook, in advance of Buffalo’s home game against undefeated Cincinnati on Sunday. “It’s something where honestly when I’m done and get to reflect back on everything in my career, it’s going to be a story to tell. But right now, I’m just kind of psyching myself up on the simplest level to just kind of going with things. For me, not getting too emotionally invested in something I have no control over is the right way to go. I’m just trying to keep everything level so I can stay focused on the things I need to worry about.”
Like, where at home did he stash that passport? Before the Bills signed him on Tuesday, less than a day after the Colts cut him for the second time in two weeks, Buffalo had him send for his passport, because as soon as its game with the Bengals is over, the entire team will be winging its way to London for a Week 7 game against Jacksonville at Wembley Stadium.
Just what Johnson needed, right? An international trip to go with all of his domestic journeys, because he just hasn’t done enough traveling of late. Planes and hotels have been his home.
“I’ve got my passport and I’m ready to go,” Johnson said. “I’ve got everything I need on my end. I make sure I prepare for anything.”
How could he not after the bizarre transient existence Johnson has led these past two months? He said he's not quite at the point where he wakes up and needs a moment to remember which city he's in and for which team he plays. But he has caught himself struggling to keep all of those different playbooks straight in his head. He used a Bengals snap count during a Colts practice one day, and has worked diligently to master the different cadences his teams have used. He now plays for Buffalo, but he’s probably more valuable this week to the Bills thanks to him knowing the language of Cincinnati’s offense.
Excuse me, sir, do you speak Bengal?
“I honestly do have some retention of it all,” said Johnson of his many different playbooks learned. “And it has happened where I get two teams mixed up, because of the way it hits your brain. You just try to eliminate that as much as possible when you’re out there with the team in practice. There’s just a lot of little stuff you’ve got to focus on that you probably wouldn’t even think of, but they become second nature when you do it over and over.”
Just like packing and unpacking, another skill set Johnson has mastered. In 2015, he's become the league’s ultimate insurance policy at the quarterback position, with teams lighting up his phone once he’s back on the open market. It’s really a compliment to him that so many clubs think he can upgrade their quarterback situation overnight. Besides joining four teams this season, his whirlwind tour of the NFL has also included working out for both the Cowboys and Eagles. Has any quarterback ever really gone where Johnson has been since the Bengals cut him loose on Aug. 25?
“That feels like a long time ago, but if you would have told me in Bengals camp this summer what was ahead for me, the first thing I would have thought would have been, ‘Damn, what’d I do wrong to get that [treatment]?’” Johnson said, laughing. “It’s been a very unique experience that I’ve tried to really take a positive outlook on, which is hard to do when the perception of things is that you’re getting cut and therefore nobody wants you. But I’ve grown to learn a lot of things play into roster moves and decisions that teams make. Sometimes it’s just not the right fit, and that doesn’t have to with your talent.”
Johnson’s outlook is ideal for his nomadic career. Every time a door closes, another one opens, and he embraces the new opportunity, believing that it might be the one that provides lasting employment. And the quarterback, who's played in 29 games with five starts in his eight-year NFL career, must have some promise, because he's had two stints with the 49ers, Bengals and Colts; now, he's again playing for Bills offensive coordinator Greg Roman, his former OC in San Francisco. But keeping his dreams alive isn’t easy when you consider he hasn’t played in a regular-season game since 2013 in Cincinnati, and hasn’t started a game since 2011 in Tampa Bay.
“I’m not the first guy to bounce around to different teams in the NFL,” Johnson said. “There have been a lot of guys who have had successful careers who have bounced around. It’s just not talked about as much, that side of the NFL. But really, it could be a whole lot worse, and that’s what helps me deal with it. Growing up in Oakland [he is a cousin of Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch], I’ll go back there and things are real. To me, that’s where it’s real. People have real problems and real struggles.
“I still have the opportunity to play a game that I love. It’s still a hell of a job. I mean, there are a lot of benefits to chasing this dream, and a lot of opportunity. As long as my skill set is up to par, I’m going to keep doing it. It’s a glass half-full, half-empty type of thing, and I’m still getting opportunities and positive looks. Every team I’ve been on, I feel like I’ve impressed them and done well, it’s just the numbers haven’t been in my favor.”
Not only has Johnson been able to play under coaches like Jim Harbaugh (both at the University of San Diego and the 49ers), Jon Gruden (who drafted him in 2008 in Tampa Bay), Jay Gruden (Tampa Bay and Cincinnati) and Hue Jackson (Cincinnati), he has had a front row seat for some interesting NFL moments, like his recent two-game stint as a Colts backup, where he watched backup quarterback-turned-starter Matt Hasselbeck work his magic in gutting out a pair of wins over Jacksonville and Houston at age 40.
And don’t even get him started on the job Harbaugh is doing at Michigan this season, because Johnson has seen and lived Harbaugh’s turnaround talents first-hand in college at San Diego.
“I told people he’d do this, because wherever Jim goes he’s going to win,” Johnson said. “He just has a mindset. He’s so competitive that he’s trying to figure out how we can start winning right now? And players cling to that. They start playing harder and they start doing things they didn’t think they could do, because somebody believes in them. That’s all it takes.”
Johnson keeps going wherever the next NFL opportunity takes him, because he still has faith he’ll find that next coach who believes in him and his quarterbacking talents. But for now, it’s Sunday afternoon against the Bengals in Buffalo, and then mostly likely on to London, where he has already played twice before with Tampa Bay, in 2009 and ’11. After that, who knows?
“What I’m going through now, to me it reflects real life,” Johnson said. “When a team releases me, I don’t get frustrated. I understand what I signed up for. My thing is, this is where my passion is at. This is what I love to do. My job is to maximize myself as a player in order to give me the opportunity to do what I want to do.
“Hopefully it all works out in my favor to where in 10 years from now I’m laughing at everything I did, knowing it helped build the character of a guy that ended up having a lot of success in this league. Everything doesn’t come easy in life. Most of it doesn’t. So it’s about pushing through. You’ve got to keep grinding, and keep going for it.”
And keep that phone handy. Because if you lose a quarterback this season in the NFL, who ya gonna call? Nobody but Josh Johnson.