There hasn’t been much news surrounding the Patriots since their loss to the Broncos two-plus weeks ago, and that’s not much of a surprise. After all, the Super Bowl just wrapped. Teams can’t start throwing around the franchise tag until February 17. The “new year” (and free agency) doesn’t start until March 11. This is a time for NFL hibernation. Especially for teams that don’t make it the Big Game.
To this point, the most notable headline to come out of Gillette was the retirement of offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia — an unsung legend inside that locker room who had been associated with the Patriots longer than many Patriots fans have been alive. Scarnecchia’s absence will be felt next year and for years to come. But then again, his departure wasn’t a shock. The Pats have a successor — Dave DeGuglielmo — in place, and if you listen to Bill Belichick, Scarnecchia actually stuck around longer than initially planned. That’s very believable. Scarnecchia is 66 years old. No one can coach forever. Although Dante gave it a solid try.
Anyway, while Scarnecchia’s departure was the most notable headline of this pseudo offseason, the most curious was the departure of Pepper Johnson.
Johnson had been a part of the Patriots coaching staff (in numerous capacities) since Belichick took over in 2000. He’d played for Belichick at three different stops along his own 13-year NFL career. He was always there with Bill, and it when it was announced on January 21 that Johnson would be leaving New England to pursue other (at the time) unspecific opportunities, something seemed off.
Even though Johnson had nothing but amazing things to say about his time with Belichick and the Pats. Even though Belichick gushed over Johnson in his own statement regarding the departure. There just had to be more to the story.
And now that “more” is starting to come to light. Johnson has since taken a job as the Buffalo Bills defensive line coach and gave some insight on his Patriots departure a recent interview on the Bills website.
Tom E. Curran has more on the specifics of what Pepper said, but it really comes down to this: Johnson wanted to do more in New England. He wants to do more in the NFL. Above all else, he wants to be a defensive coordinator — and knew it wasn’t going to happen with the Pats. So he had to move on.
“He knows the passion that I have for the game,” Johnson said of Belichick, “and I could not do that there with the Patriots.”
On that note, here’s my take: Good for Pepper Johnson.
After all, we all have dreams. We all know what it’s like to want something bad. To want to run over anything that stands in our way and break free from the chains that we believe are preventing that from becoming a reality.
In Johnson’s case, you have to assume that the writing was on the wall once he was passed over for the coordinator job in favor of Matt Patricia back in 2012. You have to assume that in the time since, he had his fair share of conversations with Belichick about that very subject and that when all was said and done, Johnson realized that it wasn’t going to happen here. That he had to “get up from under the shadow of Coach Belichick” and make it to the top on his own.
You have to respect that. Not even the fact that he joined a division rival can ruin that. Johnson gave so much to this organization. He earned the right to follow his dreams.
At the same time, the fact that one of the greatest defensive minds in NFL history and one of Johnson’s greatest football allies doesn’t necessarily see that dream as an eventual reality is probably cause for a little concern.
There’s no one in the league who knows or understands more about Pepper Johnson than Belichick. If he thought that Johnson was ready and able to do the things that he wants to do, the coach would have never let him walk. He would have given him that chance.
Then again, protégé/mentor relationships can be funny sometimes. Belichick first knew Johnson as a 22-year-old rookie who had so much to learn. And then as a 36-year-old first-time coach who probably had even more to learn. Sometimes it’s hard for a mentor to ever truly erase those initial impressions. Sometimes the memories of who the protégé was clouds the reality of what he’s become. Maybe this move really is what Johnson needs. Maybe it’s only a matter of time before he breaks out of his shell, realizes his potential and becomes a great NFL defensive coordinator. And I think I speak for most of New England when I say that I’m rooting for that to happen.
Although hopefully somewhere outside of the AFC East.
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