Tackle record would validate Derrick Johnson's place among Chiefs greats

Derrick Johnson, seen here in 2010, is seven tackles away from passing Gary Spani as the Chiefs' all-time tackle leader. AP/Ed Zurga

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- As the holder of the Kansas City Chiefs' unofficial record for tackles, Gary Spani has been waiting 29 years for someone to break his mark.

Several years back, he picked Derrick Johnson as the player who would make it happen.

“You knew how much athleticism he had," Spani said of Johnson, the Chiefs’ first-round draft pick in 2005. “It was good to see him grow as a football player. He has just gotten better and better. Obviously he had a nose for tackling and he could run, two good things. Now he’s put it all (together) and become professional.

“He had a lot of speed and athleticism already. He took care of his body and then on the professional side of it, he studied. So the guy should have a lot of tackles when it’s all said and done."

Johnson is on the verge of breaking Spani’s record. Johnson needs seven tackles to get to 1,000 for his career and pass Spani, whose nine-season career with the Chiefs ended in 1986. He now works for the Chiefs as their director of special events.

Johnson, who had eight tackles in Sunday’s win over the Houston Texans, could break the record Thursday night against the Denver Broncos at Arrowhead Stadium.

Tackles are an unofficial statistic and counts can vary from era to era and team to team. They tend to be more accurate in the modern NFL than when Spani played, or in previous eras.

That doesn’t diminish Johnson’s accomplishments. He is unlikely to reach the Pro Football Hall of Fame, like former Chiefs linebackers Bobby Bell, Willie Lanier and Derrick Thomas have.

But Johnson can rightly take his place among the franchise’s all-time greats. Johnson doesn’t need a tackle record to validate his place there, but it helps.

“I’m very aware of that," Johnson said at the mention of some of the Chiefs’ best all-time defensive players.

“It’s going to speak for itself. It’s going to answer the question if you question it if I’m tough, if I’m consistent, if I’m reliable, if I’m durable."

Johnson is certainly all of that, and more. He’s a survivor. His Chiefs career got off to a slow start and he was benched in 2009 before winning his starting job back the next season and becoming the player the Chiefs envisioned when they drafted him.

Johnson returned to play well last week and help the Chiefs to a 27-20 win over the Houston Texans. Johnson missed all but the season opener last year after tearing his Achilles tendon.

But then the Chiefs knew what they would get from Johnson. Since winning his starting job back, he’s about as consistent a player the Chiefs have known. The quality of his play doesn’t rise one week and fall the next.

“It says that this guy has made a lot of plays and he’s done it on a consistent basis," Chiefs defensive coordinator Bon Sutton said. “To reach a record like that, I think demonstrates the fact that he’s played very well for a long period of time. He’s very active. You have to have great instincts to make that many tackles. Just like the game the other day, he made two or three plays where he just darted underneath blockers and they were great, athletic plays.

“Certainly, Derrick at his position is, I think, a really outstanding athlete. The biggest compliment to me would be that he’s been able to do it consistently for a number of years.”