When Kevin Johnson was given his walking papers by the Cleveland Browns in November, he knew a few teams would be interested in acquiring his services. What he didn't realize was that half of the league would be interested in signing the 27-year-old out of Syracuse.
Sixteen teams put in a claim for Johnson when he hit the waiver wire. The Jaguars were third in the claim order and won the rights to Johnson because Atlanta and San Diego didn't claim him.
"It was just one of those things where you realize it really doesn't matter what you do as a player. If people perceive you a certain way then that's how they are going to feel about you," Johnson said.
"Coming from Cleveland, I felt that I had done an excellent job there and did everything they asked me to do. But they decided to go in a different direction. I knew some teams would be interested in me because I know how to play the game. I don't think my performance on the field was ever a problem."
Johnson's performance may not have been a problem for his team, but it definitely caused problems for his opponents. Johnson put up some gaudy numbers in Cleveland. He appeared in 73 games in five seasons, catching 315 passes for 3,836 yards and 20 touchdowns. Johnson had 41 receptions through nine games with the Browns this season before being waived.
Cleveland head coach Butch Davis is said to have taken issue with the way Johnson approached the game. He lambasted the 5-foot-11, 195-pound receiver in the media for what he called unwillingness to do the little things to get better. Davis described Johnson as a player with a me-first attitude, something that didn't sit well with Johnson.
"If they wanted to go in a different direction, that's fine. I can handle that and move on. But don't question my character as a man," Johnson said. "I think anyone who knows me as a person and knows what type of guy I am knows that I have never been in any type of trouble on or off the field. I've done everything I've needed to do as a person and as a man. When they questioned my character, that really bothered me. A lot of people read that stuff in the paper and automatically think I'm a bad guy, and it's just not true."
What is true is that the Jaguars are still looking for a player to step in opposite Jimmy Smith and provide the team with some consistent play at the wide receiver position. Since Keenan McCardell was released in a salary-cap move before the 2002 season, the team has seen a revolving door at wide receiver. Six different receivers have come and gone in the last year, which has led the passing attack to fall into the bottom half of the league — something Johnson would like to help turnaround.
"Jacksonville used to be in our (AFC Central) division, and I got to face these guys twice a year, so I've had a lot of battles with a lot of guys on this team," Johnson said. "When I first came into the league, Jacksonville had a very good team, and right now this team is getting back to that. This is a team that's young and very exciting with a lot of talent and should be a contender next year, I just want to help out anyway I can."
Johnson has never had the luxury of being a player who just helped out anyway he could. He was the No. 1 receiver his entire time in Cleveland, so he was looked upon to carry the load the majority of the time. Coming to Jacksonville, where Smith and Fred Taylor have most of the weight on their backs, Johnson is free to play the role of "Robin" for the first time in his career.
"It's tough not being the man," Johnson said. "It's tough right now, because in crunch time I'm not the guy. When the game is on the line right now, I'm not the guy who gets the ball. When you're not the guy who is the first option, it's a very humbling experience. One thing that I've realized is you can also put a smile on your face, because I feel I'm in a blessed situation working with a guy like Jimmy Smith, who has a reputation of being a great player and has lived up to that. When teams double Jimmy, that means I'm single-covered, and I've never had single coverage my entire career. Now I feel if I can get single-coverage on a second-tier corner, I should eat him alive. So it can be a blessing in disguise."
Before Johnson can beat anyone in single-coverage or make any plays on the field, he has to first learn an offense that he's never played in before. In Cleveland, Johnson played in a spread offense that emphasized getting the ball out to the receivers quickly in a short to intermediate passing attack. In Jacksonville, the offense is based getting the ball downfield in a more vertical attack.
"This is my first time playing in this type of offense," Johnson said. "Everything is pretty new to me and I'm slowly grasping the logic and philosophy of it. It's an every-day learning process and every day I'm getting better and I'm starting to understand what's expected of me. But it's something you have to work on everyday."
Joining a new team in a new city with new surroundings and learning a new offense almost makes Johnson feel like he's a rookie all over again.
"Coming here does make me feel like I'm a rookie again," Johnson said. "You're introduced to all these people you don't know, new coaches and players, and you basically have to get a feel for your environment. You know a lot of guys by name and guys know you from what you've done in the league, but you don't know guys personally. So you have to build friendships with your teammates and trust with your coaches. I'm basically starting over, and it's going to be a tough adjustment, but it's one I'm willing and excited to make."
Johnson wants to use this offseason to learn the intricacies of Bill Musgrave's offense.
"I want to try to learn as much as I can this offseason. I want to know what we're trying to do and why we do things in certain situations. As you do this, you get better and you gain more confidence with the quarterback and you learn what he likes to do and what routes he likes to throw and where he likes you to be in certain situations. You also can get your timing down with him, because when the game is on the line and you and your quarterback are out there, you have to have a feel for what the other person is going to do. That is only way you'll be able to get the job done."
Johnson is excited to develop that kind of a relationship with quarterback Byron Leftwich. He sees superstar potential in Leftwich, words he doesn't throw around very often.
"Byron is a great quarterback. I think he has the makings of being a superstar," Johnson said. "I always tell him to keep his confidence and weather the storm. He's going to make mistakes, but working through those mistakes is what is going to make him a better player. You can't let people destroy your confidence. He's done nothing but improve everyday. He knows the game, he loves the game, and he wants to get better," said Johnson.
To get away from the daily grind of football, Johnson loves to spend time with his fiancé' Shaniece and two children, Kevin and Keyshawn. And, no, Keyshawn wasn't named after the now excommunicated Buccaneer receiver.
"I didn't name him after Keyshawn Johnson the football player, I just wanted to keep his initials the same as mine," said Johnson.