Michael Johnson’s Big Decision


Aug 16, 2014; Tampa, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive end Michael Johnson (90) during the first quarter against the Miami Dolphins at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Free agent defensive end Michael Johnson is on his way to Cincinnati, which is likely the last visit he’ll take before deciding where to spend the next few years of his NFL career, and likely the remainder of his prime.  Johnson is a highly intelligent individual and will likely take his time when making this decision.  He’ll consider all sides of the issue and will eventually come to the best decision for him regarding both off-the-field and on-the-field considerations.  With that in mind, here’s a look at the many factors that will play a role in Johnson’s decision.

At this point in his career what seems most important to Michael Johnson is happiness.  Obviously a great way of looking at life’s decisions, and it’s a lesson Johnson learned the hard way after spending a difficult year in Tampa Bay.  Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com recently noted that Johnson told former teammates, “you don’t know what you’ve got there (Cincinnati).”  This statement doesn’t necessarily mean Johnson will return to the Queen City, but does go to show he’s reflected upon what really makes for a great career, and it isn’t always the money.

In Cincinnati, Michael Johnson finds three familiar coaches and Marvin Lewis, Paul Guenther, and defensive line coach Jay Hayes.  A players’ coach like Lewis will appeal to Johnson, but having a defensive line coach who he flourished under won’t hurt either; obviously, Hayes is the coach who Johnson will work most closely with, so the positive relationship they’ve shared will be a big deal.

In Minnesota, the big sell is Mike Zimmer.  Michael Johnson has an affection for his former defensive coordinator.  During the peak of Johnson’s performance, it was Zimmer who was leading the defense, which helped Johnson land what could’ve been his highly lucrative deal with Tampa Bay.  Yet, Johnson would have to accept getting used to two new coaches in Minnesota: DC George Edwards and DL coach Andre Patterson.  Both have solid resumes and if Zimmer approves of them, Johnson would likely be open to their presence in his life.  It may not prove to be much of an issue.

With regards to teammates and role, Cincinnati likely has the upper hand here.  Johnson is very close with his former teammates in Cincinnati, and especially with the defensive linemen.  Hobson points out in his piece that Johnson is likely still involved in the line’s “mass text,” which goes to show how close the group remains despite Johnson’s absence.  There’s little more Cincinnati can do on this topic than to simply mention how all the guys are still there while pointing out that Johnson flourished while playing along side them.

The Vikings offer a solid group of players themselves along the defensive line.  They won’t be able to sell Johnson on familiarity, but they can offer a situation that could be highly auspicious.  With players like Everson Griffen, Sharrif Floyd, Linval Joseph, Tom Johnson, Brian Robison, and up-and-comer Scott Crichton, the Vikings have a deep and promising defensive line.  The questions here will be, can Johnson see himself gelling with this group as well as he already does in Cincinnati, and what will be his role?

With the Bengals, Michael Johnson knows his role.  He’ll line up at the right end position and anchor the line for 85% of its snaps.  He’ll anchor the rush defense from that side while typically enjoying one-on-one matchups with the opponent’s left tackle.  Johnson could flourish once more.

Meanwhile in Minnesota, Johnson could be a starter, but would likely play in a rotation.  Griffen has to line up as much as possible considering how productive he is, and with Crichton offering so much promise, and Robinson as a solid veteran, Johnson’s role would have to be reduced.

Considering these situations will be tough.  If Johnson wants to play, and play a lot, Cincinnati is the spot.  If Johnson wants to stay fresh by playing less, and maybe end up more productive for it, the Vikings offer a solid situation.  The advantage here likely has to be Cincinnati.  The Vikings can reduce his snaps in an effort to lengthen Johnson’s career and maybe earn another contract after this one, but if this is a concept that appeals to Johnson, Cincinnati can too with depth like Wallace Gilberry, Margus Hunt, and Will Clarke (and maybe another draft selection this year) behind Johnson.

Yet as much as consistency and familiarity may be important to Michael Johnson, the NFL is a business and money does matter.  Both teams can offer Johnson financial prosperity, but will the Vikings offer a situation as secure as Cincinnati?

The Bengals don’t typically cut players prior to the end of their contracts.  Fans often grow frustrated at this reality, but it will be a selling point for Johnson after Tampa Bay proved less than loyal.  Cincinnati has proven itself in this regard; Minnesota simply hasn’t yet.  It doesn’t mean they aren’t, but regardless, they don’t have the proven track record Cincinnati does.

Finally there’s winning.  This will be a difficult choice for Johnson as both teams offer promise.  Cincinnati has been to the playoffs the last four years, but isn’t light years ahead of Minnesota, as the Bengals have failed to win in the playoffs, even with Johnson’s presence.  Will Johnson like the team’s direction?  What about Marvin Lewis’ future as head coach?  The team hasn’t extended him.  Will that be a concern to Johnson?

In Minnesota, Mike Zimmer has the team moving in the right direction.  Predictably, the defense is vastly improved and offers several young weapons to boot.  This while the Vikings’ offense is on the mend with the installment of Teddy Bridgewater under center.  The Vikings could bolster the offense in the upcoming draft with the selection of an offensive lineman in the first round and a running back near the top of the second.  Things are clearly looking up for the Vikings in a division where both the Lions and Bears are going through great changes, which only serves to help the Vikings’ playoff aspiration.

In the end, this decision likely comes down to familiarity versus promise.  Both teams can offer financial security, though the edge is probably given to Cincinnati with more money to spend and a proven track record of allowing players to earn what they sign for.  Meanwhile, both teams offer familiar coaches. Although Cincinnati offers more, the Vikings offer maybe the most important one in Mike Zimmer.

As far as teammates and winning goes, this is where familiarity versus promise kicks in.  Michael Johnson has a very close relationship with what could be his Bengals teammates.  He knows what to expect on defense and from his role, and he knows this team will be in the playoff hunt.  Can they get over the playoff hump?  Can Johnson help them do so, even considering they failed to win that elusive playoff game during his time there?  This will be the big question, as all players seek that Super Bowl victory.

The Vikings offer a great group of young players on defense.  Mike Zimmer has them clicking and they’ll likely only get better as time goes.  And with the NFC North largely in transition, it’s possible the team earns a playoff berth, though they’d likely have to battle with conference for a Wild Card spot assuming the Packers remain the class of the North.  Either way, the playoff outlook may not be as different for these teams as one might initially think.

This decision will be tight, as both teams offer a highly appealing situation.  In the end, remaining as third party as possible, I believe Michael Johnson ends up in Cincinnati.

After learning what he did this past season, consistency and financial security could likely prove to be at the top of Johnson’s priority list.  After signing one of the NFL’s most lucrative deals, Johnson found out that these are just words on paper when teams want them to.   The Vikings may be as loyal and devoted to their players as the Bengals are, but with a track record of doing so, the Bengals won’t have to sell Johnson on this, he already knows.

This while Johnson’s personal life will be assured in Cincinnati.  He’ll have fun both at work and off the field with so many close friends around.  After just being fired by your previous employer, would financial security and personal life enjoyment appeal to you?  Likely so.  I believe it will for Michael Johnson as well.

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