Johnson looks to start over with the Panthers|Troubled DT embraces new chance

Published 11:04 pm Wednesday, June 16, 2010

By By MIKE CRANSTON, AP Sports Writer
CHARLOTTE — Ed Johnson’s off-field problems started at Penn State. Then came the drug possession arrest in Indianapolis. The Colts finally gave up on him a year later for what they called lack of performance.
After being out of the NFL for much of last season, the Carolina Panthers are giving Johnson a chance to shed his image of a talented, run-stopping defensive tackle who isn’t worth the trouble.
‘‘I look at it as I’m a free agent again coming out of Penn State without a job,’’ Johnson said, ‘‘and now I have to fight for my life to get a job.’’
Depth issues and a coach’s familiarity with Johnson may make Carolina the best spot for the 6-foot-2, 296-pound Johnson.
The Panthers desperately need help at defensive tackle. Damione Lewis, Maake Kemoeatu and Hollis Thomas, who have combined to start 57 games for Carolina in the past two seasons, were either released or not re-signed.
Tank Tyler and Louis Leonard, who each spent most of last season on injured reserve, lead a remaining group of tackles with little experience on a defensive line that also must replace five-time Pro Bowl end Julius Peppers.
So there’s plenty of playing time available. And Johnson knows the defense, since Panthers defensive coordinator Ron Meeks was running the Colts’ defense in 2007 when Johnson started all 16 games and collected 63 tackles as an undrafted rookie.
‘‘I know what he expects from me. I know what he wants me to do,’’ Johnson said of Meeks. ‘‘I know the things he’s seen me do before. But I don’t think it’s a comfort zone when the bar is so high and you have to meet those expectations.’’
Johnson has had difficulty with the meeting expectations part.
Part of the reason he went undrafted was a series of college transgressions. He was suspended in 2004 for his role in an off-campus fight. He was temporarily kicked out of school a year later for what was referred to as a sexual misconduct violation, although no charges were filed.
Coach Joe Paterno suspended him from his final college game — the Outback Bowl at the end of the 2006 season — for violating a team rule.
Still, Paterno’s positive recommendation helped him get an opportunity with the Colts.
‘‘I was young, I was immature then. I made some mistakes, but he knew me,’’ Johnson said. ‘‘He knew the type of work I put in.’’
Johnson appeared to silence critics after his impressive rookie season when he took over for injured starter Anthony McFarland in training camp and appeared on his way to being another Colts undrafted success story.
That all changed early in the 2008 season, when Johnson was waived less than 24 hours after he charged with marijuana possession following a traffic stop.
‘‘Ed was well aware that his past history required him to be in complete compliance with club rules,’’ Colts president Bill Polian said at the time.
Indianapolis resisted bringing him back even though it became one of the league’s worst teams in stopping the run without him.
The Colts changed their mind when they re-signed Johnson before last season. He had to sit out Week 1 for violating the league’s substance abuse policy because of his marijuana arrest, then returned to the starting lineup.
But in early October, the Colts abruptly cut Johnson again. Coach Jim Caldwell insisted it wasn’t for off-field problems, but instead ‘‘was a matter of production.’’
‘‘Not really sure,’’ Johnson said on why he was released. ‘‘It’s football, people get cut every day, people lose their jobs every day. I don’t agree with it but you’ve got to move on. You’ve got to keep playing.’’
Trouble was, nobody wanted Johnson. He spent the final three months of the season out of the game.
‘‘Very frustrating, but it’s just one of those things,’’ Johnson said. ‘‘I’ve got great faith in God and I just kept believing.’’
It’s surprising in some ways the Panthers were the team to end his NFL exile. Carolina has avoided players with troubled pasts for much of the past decade. Coach John Fox said they did extensive background work on Johnson before signing him to a one-year deal in February.
‘‘I think he has gotten himself straightened out,’’ Fox said. ‘‘There’s no question whether he can play football.’’
Johnson has been working mostly with the backups during voluntary workouts this month. But with Carolina’s line depth in flux, he’ll likely get a chance to work his way into the rotation and could even start.
‘‘Sitting out last year gave me a lot of time to put things in perspective and see where I need to be at on the field and off the field,’’ Johnson said, ‘‘and see which direction I need to be heading in.’’