WATCH: Ernest Johnson’s Browns RB calls performance a blessing
Cleveland Browns RB D’Ernest Johnson talks about 146 yards in 22 carries against the Denver Broncos in “Thursday Night Football”.
George M. Thomas, Akron Beacon Journal
CLEVELAND – As the season draws closer, D’Ernest Johnson put on a performance that epitomized Browns culture.
The third-year running back spent part of 2018 working on a fishing boat, trolling for mahi-mahi off Key West, Florida. That same year, the University of South Florida product sent a direct message to all teams in the Alliance of American Football asking if they would be interested in its flagship video. After Orlando signed him, he couldn’t resist posting his DM on Instagram.
On Thursday, the biggest night in Johnson’s football life, former USF softball player Courtney Kramer tweeted the screenshot she recorded of what Johnson wrote as it represented to which point he had fought for a career in the NFL.
She wasn’t the only one watching Johnson with a career-high 146 yards on 22 carries and a touchdown in the Browns’ 17-14 win over the Denver Broncos. LeBron James tweeted about Johnson. Fox Sports analyst Troy Aikman, Hall of Fame quarterback, led Johnson into the elevator as he left FirstEnergy Stadium.
A year ago, the Browns showed they can survive when players, assistant coaches and coach Kevin Stefanski contracted COVID-19 or were considered close contact. Against the Broncos, the Browns came out again in dire straits.
This time a disappointing season started 3-3 was at a crossroads.
Quarterback Baker Mayfield was inactive with a torn labrum and what Fox Sports’ Jay Glazer reported ahead of the game was a fractured humerus in his left shoulder. The dynamic duo of running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt were injured. Right tackle Jack Conklin (knee) missed his second straight game. Star receivers Odell Beckham Jr., who injured his shoulder Sunday, and Jarvis Landry, were activated off the injured reserve with an MCL sprain that cost him four games, played but not 100%. Left tackle Jedrick Wills Jr. returned after missing two games with an ankle injury initially suffered in Game 1.
Stunned by the praise of King James: Cleveland Browns RB Ernest Johnson shocked at LeBron James’ respect for him in tweet
But the Browns have continuously shown that they can dig deep – both in terms of heart and desire and all the way to the bottom of the depth chart – and find men they can win with. Last year, in the Browns’ victory in Pittsburgh, Mayfield revealed, “A guy named Blake I introduced myself to literally just before the game got even hotter.” He was referring to offensive lineman Blake Hance, signed in Week 17 of the 2020 season, who entered the game at left guard with a fourth quarter injury.
Hance did it again Thursday. He had started the previous two games for Wills, but that night he had replaced Conklin. He spent most of the first half facing the eight-time Pro Bowl rusher Von Miller, who vowed Tuesday he would “kill” the Browns’ offensive tackles. Miller left with an ankle injury just before halftime, but Stefanski said Hance was “doing fine” against future Hall of Fame member Miller.
When it comes to Browns culture, Case Keenum has the same basic traits. Keenum, 33, a nine-year veteran, had not started a game since Dec. 29, 2019 for the Washington soccer team. He didn’t get any reps with the first team in this week’s only training session on Tuesday.
Keenum was another successful when the Browns were desperate, completing 21 of 33 passes for 199 yards and a touchdown and a 90.3 rating.
But Johnson was the one who wasn’t sure he had a chance, who didn’t believe reporters when they told him King James tweeted about him.
Johnson’s story would be film-worthy if he ever became a star. He spent three days on trial at the New Orleans Saints rookie minicamp in 2018, worked six weeks on the fishing boat, became a personal trainer and spent time with the AAF Orlando Apollos before the shutdown of the league. When the Browns signed him in May 2019, he was working with coach Tim Montgomery and former Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon in Gainesville, Fla.
This season, Johnson had been relegated to the special teams. He came into the evening with three carries for 11 yards in the first six games. His coaches and teammates believed in him, but few of the away team’s headquarters knew he was capable of tackling the No.1 U-Turn duties.
But when the game was on the line after a Broncos touchdown reduced the lead to 17-14, Johnson practically cemented the victory on his own. In the 5:17 final, the Browns ran 10 games and scored 61 yards, 52 of Johnson’s seven carries.
On the Denver 20’s third and 7 with 1:09 remaining, Johnson bombed 8 yards, then was assaulted. Left guard Wyatt Teller patted Johnson on the chest, Wills put his arm around Johnson’s neck.
“It was great knowing that everyone believed in me,” Johnson said. “Just coming here and sealing the victory for the team means a lot, the most.”
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Johnson had dreamed of touchdowns before arriving in the NFL, but admitted he didn’t know what to do when he scored his first goal on a 4-yard run to cap the Browns’ opening possession.
“Inexplicable,” he said. “I wanted to celebrate, but I didn’t know what to do. I just screamed. Because it’s been a long journey. To get your first start and get a 100 yard game, get that touchdown, it’s nothing but God. I give Him thanks.
Wearing a ‘Trust the Process’ t-shirt, Johnson said he never lost that trust.
“Coming from the fishing boat, I always dreamed of playing in the NFL,” he said. “Playing in the AAF, at the same time I always dreamed of being here. Being able to be part of this team is a blessing. “
Johnson’s teammates were thrilled for him. His previous highs were 13 carries for 95 yards in Dallas on October 4, 2020, when Chubb injured his knee in the first quarter. Johnson’s 146 rushing yards against the Broncos were the third by a player in his first career start in the past 30 seasons behind Hunt (148) in 2017 and Cadillac Williams (148) in 2005.
“Unbelievable. Unbelievable. It’s something we’ve seen for 30 years since he’s been here,” said Landry. “Dallas game, kind of the same situation and he made some big points. What he was capable of. Obviously we have a two-headed monster out there so it’s kinda hard to get him to run, but when he does he plays like that and it’s pretty consistent.
Browns defensive end Myles Garrett said Johnson embodied the Browns football brand in the last practice.
“Especially the AFC North, that’s what everyone does. Tough, physical, able to throw the ball at anyone, ”said Garrett. “We’re doing it the best of anyone in the league right now. We have some of the best full backs in all divisions. We have depth in that position of competence, and it was a next man mentality across the board.
“He stepped up when his name was called, and it exploded. … They emptied the clock and he was able to continue hammering that stone. It was beautiful.”
Linebacker Anthony Walker Jr. loves that Johnson was able to follow his “Slow Grind” mantra to success.
“You stick to the script. You fight and fight your way. Walker said. “I think he’s played in every football league out there. You couldn’t be happier for a guy who works everyday, never complains and does whatever the team asks. the opportunity, went out there and seized the moment.
Keenum’s comments expressed his enthusiasm for Johnson.
“A guy like him, whom the locker room adores and everyone loves – a wonderful young family and just a good person overall – come here and have an amazing night like this and make some great plays for us on a national stage, not just his family here watching, but everyone at home, ”Keenum said. “Very excited for him. It was exciting. “
Stefanski called Johnson a “warrior and a great teammate” and praised him for his persistence, concluding his evening perfectly on his last transport.
But Stefanski said what Johnson, Keenum and Hance did was not part of any big plan, nor to instill a culture.
“I’m not trying to instill a culture,” Stefanski said. “I’m just going to tell you that our team and our players understand that we have to give everything we have week after week. Over the course of a short week in some of the areas where we got hit, I think the guys weren’t going to take a no for an answer. “
Stefanski might not try, but the culture is instilled nonetheless. Walker said Stefanski told the team earlier this week: “Who cares? How are you going to respond? ” regarding a seemingly insurmountable injury report.
Thursday showed the rest of the world what the Browns believe in – tenacity, competitiveness, determination, caring, and a next-man mentality – and none exemplified that better than Johnson.
He was asked if he had mahi-mahi for dinner on Friday, “Certainly no mahi-mahi. Maybe there is salmon, but no mahi-mahi.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at [email protected] Learn more about the Browns at www.beaconjournal.com/browns. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ.