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There Are 32 NFL Starting Quarterbacks. Josh Johnson Is One of Them

Before you finish that sentence with “—and Colin Kaepernick is not,” hear out the guy who’s played for enough teams to fill three divisions.

After two battlefield casualties—first Alex Smith, then Colt McCoy—Washington’s football team had to call in the off-duty reserves to fortify the quarterback position last week. Coach Jay Gruden confirmed there had been internal discussions about summoning Colin Kaepernick to back up Mark Sanchez, who the team signed after Smith’s injury. But, ultimately, last Wednesday, the team “went in a different direction,” as Gruden coachspoke, and instead signed... Josh Johnson.

This did not put Washington in exclusive company. Once briefly a starter in Tampa, Johnson, 32, has spent most of the past decade giving new zest to the term “mobile quarterback.” Last week’s announcement marked something of a minor milestone: Johnson’s 20th different NFL contract with his 12th different NFL team since he was drafted in 2008. And Sunday marked a separate milestone of sorts: Late in a blowout loss to the Giants, Johnson relieved a miserable Sanchez and threw his first pass since ’11. (About that streak: “That’s true,” says Johnson, “but I also haven’t been tackled much lately.)

At a time when the reigning Super Bowl winners lifted the Lombardi trophy with a back-up behind center, Johnson operates, not wrongly, with the understanding that NFL fortunes can adjust on the fly. The newly-anointed starting quarterback—Gruden made that call before even leaving FedExField on Sunday—reflects on his odyssey and shares some of his accumulated wisdom with SI last Friday:

• Until now, I hadn’t thought about [potentially taking Colin Kaepernick’s roster spot in Washington]. That’s just not how I look at it. Equality and justice? I live by what he stands for. But that [storyline] is for the media. Y’all need those talking points. I’m not a talking point guy. In the NFL, everything is over-scrutinized, over-analyzed. Everyone is a coach or a critic.

• I don’t really like it when people call me a “backup quarterback.” That’s not how I see myself. No, I’m a quarterback. Same for “journeyman quarterback.” Again, I’m a quarterback. I’m on a journey. But so is everyone. This is life, right? Not everyone is in the position to be as successful as they can be. Not everyone can be the star at their job. There are ups and downs in our careers and it’s how we handle it that matters. But when the opportunity comes, you have to be ready. That sounds like self-help, but it’s the truth.

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• NFL teams, they’re all different, all different workplaces. But the goals don’t change for players. Prove your worth. Prove you’re a good teammate. Get the respect in the locker room. I’ve been in different divisions, different-sized markets; winning teams, losing teams. ... The cultures are all different, but the job doesn’t change.

• You know how when you go on vacation you can either lie on the beach or go experience the culture? When I go to a new team, I want to immerse myself and experience as much as possible. Learning a new organization can be like learning a new city. I’m a big Why? guy. I would guess most quarterbacks are.

• You know what’s weird? As a backup, you want to be out there playing, but you never want the starter to do badly. And you never hope for anyone to be injured. People ask me about that. You just don’t. ... I’ve learned that I’m human. I get frustrated. I get upset. I get selfish sometimes. But I’ve also learned that it’s how you handle yourself that defines you. Will I hate on another man’s opportunity—another man who did nothing wrong to me? I will not.

• Most of us [quarterbacks] have never been backups before. Then you come to the NFL and there are only 32 jobs. Unless you have one of them, there’s going to be an adjustment. Being a competitor, that sh-- is hard. And not just hard on your ego. When you’re a starter, you know everything is going to be built around you, how you want it. But when the team is built around someone else, and you gotta fit in? That’s a totally different story.

• Playing college football in San Diego was good preparation. You’re off to the side, not part of the national media discussion. And I played for coach [Jim] Harbaugh. I didn’t know it at the time, obviously, but it was like I was already playing for an NFL coach.

• My first year in the NFL, I felt like a redshirt. My second year, I started camp fourth on the depth chart behind guys like Jeff Garcia and Brian Griese and Luke McCown—not getting reps, not in the huddle. Then, suddenly, I’m starting. ... I started in my second year. We went 0–4. We weren’t a good team. But you have to bear that as a quarterback; it’s going to fall on your shoulders.

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• Until you’re starting, you take wins where you can get them. Did I play well in the preseason? Did we move the ball when I played in practice? Did the defense come shake my hand? You take confirmation where you can get it. It doesn’t always have to be on Sunday.

• A week ago I was working out in Oakland, in the weight room of my old high school [Oakland Tech]. Going home is as much about keeping me mentally sharp as anything else. What I experienced growing up in Oakland, that’s real-life struggle. Visiting a place where a lot of people don’t have hope or can’t envision success because they’re not surrounded by it, that keeps me sharp. It makes me never forget how lucky I am.

• Want to hear something? When the call from the Redskins came I was in the hospital visiting one of the young folks I work with—I don’t like the word “mentor”—someone who had broken his leg playing football. When he went to a doctor, they discovered he had cancer. A curse was a blessing. It’s all about perspective.

• My mom—a single mom—was a security guard at my high school. She coaches sports there. She worked at FedEx, too, and weekends at Toys ’R’ Us. I remember her falling asleep at stoplights because she was so tired. So, getting cut from an NFL team? I’m not going to like it, but I’m not going to let it pin me. I’m lucky in the sense that I can ask myself, “Do I want to do this or not?”

• Arm strength and all that is important for a quarterback, but so is recall and memory. I adapt to playbooks real well. Can I name all the teams I’ve been on? I’ll do it for you, in reverse order, right now. Technically, I’m on the San Diego Fleet [of the Alliance of American Football] right now, but we haven’t practiced yet. This offseason, I was with the Raiders. Had to work out in Seattle—that didn’t go through. Last year, I was with the Texans. Then I was with the Giants all offseason. I was with the Giants for the whole 2016 season. Before that I was in Buffalo. Indianapolis. And I was with the Jets in the preseason. Cincinnati in preseason. The year before that, I was with San Fran. Year before that, Cincy. Year before that, I was in the UFL playing one game in Sacramento. Cleveland. Year before that, offseason, I was with the Niners. And then before that was Tampa, ’11 to ’08. ... Actually, I was with Baltimore one offseason. Sorry, I must have skipped over that. I played for Jay Gruden in Tampa. And again in Cincinnati. So this is a playbook I know.

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• Everyone says it, but you really do pick up different things everywhere you play. Some organizations might be better run than others, but I’m not getting into that now. Ask me about it when I retire.

• Yes, Marshawn Lynch is my cousin. If people ask about him, I’m happy to tell them. But it’s not like I’m going around bragging about it. 

• Getting lost in the shuffle is a real thing. 

• I have a lot of former teammates, that’s true. But I’m getting to the age where I walk into a locker room and there are as many familiar faces in the coaches’ room as there are in the players’ area. ... Then again, most people think I’m 23. I can still move well. I stay in shape. I’m in tune with my body.

• One thing I’ve learned: When you love something and you can’t really experience it the way you want to, it teaches you a whole lot about yourself. It’s a good rule for life, I think. Be realistic enough to know you might not get every snap. But prepare like you’ll be starting.