FAIRFIELD — Despite his team finishing a 5-11 season without him, Rodriguez High graduate and Cleveland Browns rookie linebacker James-Michael Johnson said his first season in the NFL was a good one.
“The season went well. I wish we could have won more games than we did,” Johnson said from Cleveland, where he’s rehabbing a knee injury suffered in a Dec. 16 game against the Washington Redskins.
Johnson learned that there’s “a lot more than I expected” to playing in the NFL.
“People can always tell you about the NFL,” he said, adding that the only way to really understand it is to play. “I came away real confident knowing I can play at this level. Knowing what to expect I think next year I’ll have a big year.”
Not that this season was a bust.
In 10 games and eight starts, Johnson amassed 36 tackles, 20 of them solo.
Not a lot really surprised Johnson, except for how quickly he settled in.
“What surprised me probably was how I picked up the game well. Just realizing I can play at this level – it’s a lifelong dream – and you can actually do it,” he said. “Once you actually get it, it’s just football. Just run and tackle and don’t try to make it what it’s not.”
Keeping himself grounded was a major key to getting through the season.
It also helped Johnson to have some big games.
He said his best moment was the Oct. 28 game against the San Diego Chargers.
“I had a really god game, made a lot of big plays in that game and we won that game so it was a big deal for us,” Johnson said.
He totaled nine tackles in that game with four solo and one tackle for loss.
Johnson’s favorite moment of his rookie campaign also came against a team from his home state.
“Playing in Oakland. A lot of my family and friends came to that game,” Johnson said. “One of things I always wanted to do growing up was to play in the Oakland Coliseum that was real cool.”
That Dec. 2 game also fell in the middle of a three-game win streak for the Browns.
In the end, it wasn’t nearly enough to save head coach Pat Shurmur’s job.
Knowing changes are under way in Cleveland, Johnson said he’s just watching and waiting to see what happens.
“I know they’re interviewing coaches now, I can’t control any of that,” he said. “Whoever they bring in I just hoe he’s enthusiastic. We have a lot of talent and I know we can win.”
Most recently the Browns were said to have spoken with Oregon coach Chip Kelly, fresh off a blowout victory in Thursday’s Fiesta Bowl.
For Johnson it’s all about focusing on what he can control.
Right now that’s finishing the rehab work on his knee so he can get back home to Fairfield.
“It’s going alright. A little faster than I thought I would,” he said, adding that he should be healthy in a couple more weeks.
With most of the players gone for the offseason it is a bit lonely around the team facilities.
“It’s a little weird. There’s no players – nobody really – that’s a little different,” Johnson said.
Even with missing some time at the end, Johnson said he definitely improved his game.
“I got a better feel for the game, got a lot smarter,” he said. “We had two real good position coaches in the linebacker room. I’m happy I had those coaches I had. I got a lot better this year than I was last year.”
Johnson did manage to catch the eye of Packers linebacker and Fairfield High product Desmond Bishop.
“I saw him early on, his first couple starts – I thought he was good,” said Bishop, who is rehabbing his own season-ending injury in Green Bay. “I thought he played really well. He still has a lot to grow, but he’s a really good player.”
Bishop said it’s always good to see guys coming out of Fairfield and having success at the highest level.
“I like it a lot,” Bishop said. “It’s somebody I can watch and cheer for as well. It’s good. Hometown pride.”
Making the jump to the NFL from the University of Nevada revealed some stark differences.
“You have to pay attention to detail. . . . You got to be locked in all the time,” he said. “You can’t afford to not pay attention at this level. Everybody’s good. You really got to be locked in on your stuff.”
For Johnson that hasn’t been a problem.
“It was a blessing. I’m glad I got the opportunity to play at this level,” he said. “I’m looking forward to the offseason. I’ll get to work on myself and come back next year as a better player.”
Reach Mike Corpos at 427-6979, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/mcorposdr.