Johnson didn’t even pack a change of clothes. He caught a 6 a.m. flight to Detroit from Newark and was booked on a return flight that evening.
He did not return to New Jersey.
“I worked out at 11,” Johnson said after practice Saturday. “They signed me that day. The next day I was at the voluntary minicamp.
“Everything else is history after that.”
Johnson’s fourth-month brief history with the Lions is the focus of this week’s Monday Countdown.
With NFL teams in the process of shaping their final rosters, Johnson is an example of opportunity, the process of how teams acquire players, what making a roster can mean to players on the bubble, and how many who are overlooked in the draft have become valuable contributors.
Waiting game: Johnson, who turns 26 in December, has impressed the coaches with his quickness and pass-rush skills in the first three preseason games. There is one more game, Thursday night at Buffalo, before the final cut to the regular-season limit of 53 players is made at 4 p.m. on Saturday.
Johnson can almost dare to think about making arrangements for a place to live the rest of the year with his wife and kids.
“Almost” is the key word for Johnson in sizing up his status.
Based on how his career has gone since he went undrafted coming out of Rutgers in 2010 and bounced around the NFL, he knows that nothing is guaranteed.
“For a person who’s on the bubble, this is the most stressful time of the football season,” Johnson said. “You don’t know if you’re on the team. You don’t know if you’re off the team. Right now, it’s just up in the air.”
What will he do when cut-down day arrives?
Johnson answered with the gallows humor of someone who’s been down that road before.
“Try not to think about it,” he said. “Try to stay far away from the phone.”
Life on the bubble: Cut-down day is a time when careers can be started, prolonged and ended before they begin.
Even though he first went to camp with Tampa Bay in 2010, Johnson is far closer to the starting point than the end in terms of service.
He has been credited with nine games played for the Bucs and Vikings from 2011-13 He played four games for the Bucs in 2011, five for the Bucs and two for the Vikings in 2012 and none for the Vikings last year, when he was on the roster for the first five weeks but was not active for a game.
He has been credited with one solo tackle, six assists and no sacks.
He talked Saturday about being cut three times by the Bucs alone, and how last year he waited for a call that never came after he was cut by the Vikings. He remained in Minnesota, working out, and carried his phone with him at all times.
“I kept it full charged all the time,” he said.
The next call of a job offer didn’t come until April from the Lions.
Even Jack Bauer’s cellphone battery didn’t last seven months.
Career change: Johnson was ready to look for a job away from football if the Lions had not called. The reality was that he needed to make a living to support his family.
“I was searching for jobs – literally in the papers, regular jobs,” he said. “I considered telemarketing, being a night club bouncer, construction. There are a whole bunch of things I was considering.”
The late Monte Clark, whose long NFL career as player and coach included seven seasons as head coach of the Lions, once described life in football this way: “It’s not all shiny uniforms and victory parties.”
The NFL considers Johnson a third-year player. He’s on a one-year contract that calls for a base salary of $730,000, if he makes the roster. There are other issues based on level of service that qualify players for benefits such as pensions and health care that are as critical to a player’s long-term financial wellbeing as they are to anyone on any job.
Player procurement: There are many ways to acquire talent – draft, free-agency, waiver claims and trades – but no formula guarantees success.
“I think there’s a lot of folks who wish they could put their thumb on it,” Lions head coach Jim Caldwell said. “There’s a bunch of guys in the league that have been around a little bit and have found a home and found a niche and were able to play a little bit better at one place than they did in any other.
“You could also attribute that to maturity. There are a lot of different factors involved. Or in some cases, it might be a schematic thing – a guy moving from a 3-4 to a 4-3.
“I think there are a number of different things, but no set rule on where they come from.”
The defensive line needs depth behind the starters on the four-man front because of the physical demands of rushing the quarterback and pursuing on almost every play.
Johnson has performed well as a regular part of the rotation at defensive end. In Friday night’s victory over Jacksonville, Johnson had three tackles, two quarterback hits and a sack.
At 6-4 and 260 pounds, he has the build and quickness to be a productive edge rusher.
“George has quickness, he has explosion, he’s long, he’s linear,” Caldwell said. “I think he’s really just scratching the surface of where he is because he changed his body type. He’s trimmed down, and I think he’s at his natural weight now.
“We’re excited about it. As a matter of fact, Jim Washburn (the defensive line coach) from the onset, when he saw him rush the passer, even in non-padded days, thought he could be pretty special.”
Discards to aces: If Johnson needs any reassurance that he will get a fair chance to make the roster, he need only scan the locker room for examples of players who have made careers through perseverance.
A classic case is running back
Bell and Bush have teamed to give the Lions one of the NFL’s best running-back tandems. Earlier this year, Bell signed a three-year contract worth $9.3 million, with $4.3 million guaranteed.
Caldwell and Johnson both said that a weight loss has helped him fit the Lions’ scheme. Johnson played at 285 pounds in Tampa. He’s in the 260-265 range in Detroit. Tampa’s system wanted bulk. The Lions want speed and quickness at end.
“This scheme is actually more suited to me,” Johnson said. “I really thought I was done, that no team was going to call me.
“I definitely thought this was the last chance.”