After eight NFL seasons with the New Orleans Saints, defensive lineman Joe Johnson is at Green Bay Packers' mini-camp in what he termed the "opportunity of a lifetime."
Certainly, it seems the best opportunity of his career. A first-round draft choice (13th overall selection) out of Louisville in 1994, Johnson has spent his entire professional life with a Saints team that has gone 49-79, while the Packers have gone 87-43 in that span.
"I've never had a chance to quite live on what you might call the 'other side,'" Johnson said, comparing the recent history of the Saints with that of the Packers. But he does now, having signed a multi-year contract with the Packers back in March.
Despite the turnover that has led to turmoil in New Orleans, Johnson planned to stay with the organization, until the Packers approached him.
"Green Bay was my only other option," Johnson said. "I'm in a position now where, let's face it, I'm pretty much entering my homestretch. For me it was important to go somewhere where the fans were great, the tradition is great and to just be a part of a winning tradition and to be a part of a family atmosphere was very important to me.
"The dollars and cents really wasn't a priority . . . The priority was a comfortable environment and also an environment that had the same goals that I have, which is winning a championship, nothing less."
Johnson said that in his few weeks with the organization, he's already noticed differences, namely an attention to detail that he felt was lacking with the Saints. In fact, it was one critical detail above others that influenced his decision to migrate north.
"I was very impressed, and took it to heart, for Coach (Mike) Sherman to go out of his way to come down to New Orleans and meet with me personally, not over the phone, not through a personnel director, not a position coach," Johnson said. "To take time out of his busy schedule really meant a lot to me."
Johnson said he also took into consideration the Packers' winning tradition and renowned fan support.
"Whether you've never played against Green Bay or you play against Green Bay twice a year, there's one thing you know and it's that the fans are going to be there, rain, sleet, snow," he said. "It's been like that for years and it's going to be like that for years to come. I haven't been in a position of that sort, but all throughout the league, and I think all throughout the country and the world, everyone knows what it means to be a Green Bay Packer."
One thing it means to be a Packer is to play on the natural grass of Lambeau Field. Frozen Tundra or not, the natural surface should be a plus for the 29-year-old as he nears the twilight of his career.
It was a knee injury that forced Johnson to miss the 1999 season. He responded however by winning the NFL's 'Comeback Player of the Year' award with a 12.5 sack season in 2000, and last year he recorded 65 tackles including 9 sacks.
If his stats weren't proof enough, Johnson reported that his knees are as healthy as ever. In fact, save 1999, Johnson has been noted for being a rare every-day, every-play defensive lineman.
"There's something I've always prided myself in doing and that's not being a one-dimensional player, being able to play the run as well as the pass," he said. "A lot of teams are going to situational players. You have some that are going to play on first down, some that are going to play on third down. I truly think that every-down players are a lost art and it's something I take pride in doing."
Coach Sherman believes that Johnson's tenacious every-down play will make him a leader not only on the field, but in the locker room as well. Which was exactly what he was looking for.
"He's a great professional, has played the game consistently throughout his career and we're very lucky to get him," Sherman said. "I know he'll have a great career here."
Johnson feels the same.
"Other people say that once you hit 30, you're going downhill as far as the NFL is concerned," Johnson said. "I feel differently about the situation. As each year goes on, I feel better and better physically, as well as better and better mentally."
Wednesday, Johnson got a chance to stretch his legs with his new teammates. It's different, he admitted, trying to learn the style and terminology of a new team, but said that he felt right at home.
"Once you get down to the nitty-gritty, it's just football," he said.