The NFL's eternal standby quarterback isn't ready to give up
"I'll answer your question with a question," Josh Johnson said over the phone the other day.
Johnson was asked why, at age 35, he chooses to keep trying to play professional football. Even though just about any pro athlete will tell you they'd love to stay at it for as long as they physically can, that their love for the game and the competitive drive that fuels their ambition isn't exactly equipped with an off switch, it still seemed like a fair question to ask Johnson.
"Why shouldn't I?"
Consider his career path. When he signed with the New York Jets on Aug. 4, Johnson began his 17th stint in the NFL, with 13 different teams. Only placekicker Shayne Graham, who earlier this century suited up for 15 franchises, is believed to have played for more NFL organizations. Throw in the brief time Johnson spent in the UFL, AAF, and XFL, and that's an even 20 job opportunities in 14 years as a pro. But the real total is more than that.
"I don't count them," he told theScore. "I'll do it when I'm done. I can still play."
Johnson isn't a typical NFL journeyman. He's not like Ryan Fitzpatrick, now on his ninth team in 17 seasons, hopping from opportunity to opportunity because he's uniquely mediocre enough to remain a starter, at least until he proves can't be.
This is the part that makes Johnson's story so fascinating: he actually isn't a career backup, either, at least not in the way that role is most commonly understood. He's not like Mike Glennon, Brian Hoyer, Chad Henne, Case Keenum, Colt McCoy, AJ McCarron, Blaine Gabbert, Chase Daniel, Geno Smith, you name it - guys you tend to realize are still in the league because they're suddenly out there during garbage time, or because the starter in front of them just got hurt, or because the camera happened to pan on them as they stood around in a baseball cap, gripping a clipboard.
That hasn't been Johnson's football journey. He clearly has ability, or he wouldn't still be doing this. But his staying power lies in his willingness to be the league's on-call quarterback, the standby teams can turn to in a pinch whenever they need a veteran because of an injury or a trade or something unforeseen - even if it's just for a few weeks, or sometimes only a few days.
Johnson's bounced around, all right. But even in a profession in which a significant portion of the non-star, non-starter workforce has little job security, his itinerant odyssey has been marked by an unusual amount of precarity and unpredictability. Most try-hards and fringe players tend to fade away rather quickly. But teams keep reaching out to Josh Johnson, and he and his agent, Doug Hendrickson, keep taking their phone calls. And Johnson isn't ready to quit just yet.
Get a load of Johnson's Pro Sports Transactions entry, which stretches on for three pages and lists 24 transactions. He's been waived or released 15 times. He's had eight opportunities that only involved being on an expanded offseason or training camp roster, including a previous run with the Jets that lasted all of nine days. Nine of his in-season chances lasted for two weeks or fewer, with one of them running a mere three days. Why do this?
Take a look at how things went for Johnson in 2014:
- May 12: Released by the Bengals after spending the entire previous season on the 53-man roster
- May 14: Signed by the 49ers
- Sept. 20: Released by the 49ers
- Sept. 23: Signed again by the 49ers
- Oct. 10: Released again by the 49ers
- Oct. 14: Signed again by the 49ers
- Oct. 17: Released again by the 49ers
- Oct. 21: Signed yet again by the 49ers, who kept him on the roster for the remainder of the season
Now check out Johnson's football life in 2015, after his contract with the Niners expired that March:
- Apr. 2: Signed back by the Bengals
- Aug. 25: Released by the Bengals
- Aug. 27: Signed by the Jets
- Sept. 5: Released by the Jets
- Oct. 2: Signed by the Colts
- Oct. 5: Released by the Colts
- Oct. 7: Signed again by the Colts
- Oct. 12: Released again by the Colts
- Oct. 13: Signed by the Bills, who kept him around for the rest of the year
That was six years and seven teams ago. Yet Johnson remains always prepared to drop everything at a moment's notice, to leave his native Oakland and hop on a plane to any town with a pro football team that will have him. He bides his time by staying in shape, by throwing to local high schoolers, and by pursuing business opportunities and investments and working with his foundation. As Johnson put it, he's just trying to "create stability without a stable career."
He was working as an assistant football coach at his old high school a few weeks ago when the Jets hollered with this latest job opportunity.
“Look, you’ve got to give the guy credit," Hendrickson told theScore. "For being as old as he is and been around, this guy’s always ready. It’s hard sometimes getting ready. He’s built a little differently, you know what I mean? Not many guys can just roll off a red-eye and go from the airport to the field and go throw like he can throw.”
Johnson is engaged to be married and has three children. He admitted pursuing his passion despite so much uncertainty isn't always easy. But he doesn't take any of his opportunities for granted. He also acknowledged that he knows a lot of what he's up against is beyond his control. He's not some naive idealist chasing a pipe dream; he's a total realist who's grateful to still be doing what a lot of people - be it back in Oakland or anywhere else - never had the chance to do for a moment, let alone for 14 years.
It also hasn't hurt that he's earned more than $5 million across his career from the NFL, per Over the Cap.
"It's like going from Disney World to the real world," he said of what he feels like when every football chance he gets comes to an end. "I feel like I'm at Disney when I'm at work."
Johnson played for Jim Harbaugh at the University of San Diego before the Tampa Bay Buccaneers selected him in the fifth round of the 2008 draft. He finished his rookie contract with the Bucs, appearing in 26 games with five starts. He's been on the move ever since. After playing a total of three games with the Browns and Bengals in 2012 and 2013, he didn't see the field in the NFL again until 2018.
Remarkably, Johnson was out of football until December of that year, only to have Washington ring him after Alex Smith and McCoy sustained season-ending injuries. When Mark Sanchez was benched at halftime during Johnson's first game on the roster, Johnson got the wheel. He started the season's final three games, winning one of them.
Johnson knows that's the door that might fling open if he keeps knocking on it, just as long as some team is willing to let him hang around. But it doesn't mean he'll take any chance that comes his way. Two years ago, he turned down an offer to join the Baltimore Ravens for a second time because he knew it was only going to be temporary gig given their quarterback situation. This summer, according to Hendrickson, the Las Vegas Raiders also wanted him. But back in 2018, they only kept him for a few weeks during the offseason, and their current QB scenario isn't much different now than it was then. Besides, Johnson had another suitor.
The Jets presented Johnson with an enticing opportunity. Zach Wilson was drafted to start, of course, but neither James Morgan nor Mike White behind him has any NFL game experience. Johnson didn't play in the Jets' first two preseason games, but he went 7-for-8 for 73 yards and a touchdown pass in Friday night's finale. Will it be enough? Rosters must be reduced from 80 to the regular-season limit of 53 by Tuesday. Johnson will know where he stands by then, but no matter how things turn out, he remains steadfast and confident in what he has to offer.
"With a 17-game season," he said, "I have a lot of value."
Johnson hopes to play into his 40s, just as other, better-established quarterbacks now seem to be able to do with increasing frequency. He knows he'll need a lot of luck to make that happen, but he's not about to stop trying - at least not yet. No matter what happens with the Jets, he intends to stick with it. Hell, why shouldn't he?
“It’s a testament to Josh that he’s been able to battle and scrape and carve out this niche of a career," Hendrickson said. "Which is pretty damn cool - so much so that he continues to get work, continues to be employed.”
Dom Cosentino is a senior features writer at theScore.