Johnson’s third season with the Chargers was his most impactful. He missed one game due to the birth of his daughter, finishing a game short of playing a full, 16-game season for the ninth time in his 12-year career. And when Johnson played, he produced. In 523 plays, Johnson ably served as San Diego’s run-stuffing linebacker on the outside, finishing ninth on the team in tackles with 51. He added a sack and a forced fumble.
“I’ve become a better football player since I’ve been here,” he said. “I’ve learned different aspects of football, different ways to view the game. I think I’m a better person today then I was [before] in my approach to work. I don’t complain about the schedule. I don’t worry about whether we’re in pads. You just get your work in, and you put a smile on your face and go hard every day.”
Johnson also provided steady leadership and motivation. He was voted San Diego’s defensive co-captain alongside safety Eric Weddle, and shared the team’s most inspirational award with Malcom Floyd. His halftime speech to the defense in the locker room against the San Francisco 49ers with San Diego down 28-7 was mentioned by head coach Mike McCoy and other players as a catalyst for the team’s come-from-behind win.
At 33 years old, Johnson is one of aging foundational players on San Diego’s roster. He’s due to make $5 million in base salary the final year of his contract. But Johnson already proved he’s amenable to taking a pay cut to stay with the Chargers, agreeing to reduce his total compensation in 2014 from $4 million to $3 million.
The Chargers will have to decide if players like Tourek Williams and Jeremiah Attaochu are ready to take on larger roles on the defense, or if Johnson gives them the best chance to make another playoff run in 2015.
If Johnson feels he can contribute, the Chargers should bring him back. He’s the type of player that could take on a reduced role, still be effective and not complain about the lack of playing time. But ultimately Johnson has to decide if his body can take the brunt of a 13th NFL season.
“I’m at that age where you have to evaluate it every year,” Johnson said. “I think this was my most productive, most consistent year since I’ve been here. Definitely, the most confident because I didn’t have the injuries that I had last year, but this is my 12th year. I’m not a spring chicken.
“I’m going to go home and evaluate where I’m at. Obviously, what they say is going to have a lot of weight to my future. But whatever I decide, I’m content. I’m happy with where I am as a player, as a person and what I’ve done this year. I feel like I played as hard and as physical as I could, and with a smile on my face every day.
“And if I hang it up, I’m going to hang it up happy and knowing that whoever is coming behind me, I set the stage for them. And I hope they’re a better person from being around me, because I’m a better person from being around them."