They Shall Not Pass-That's Johnson's Credo
By DICK O'CONNOR
SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. - Cornerback Jim Johnson of the San Francisco 49ers has earned the ultimate respect of pro football rivals. They seldom throw passes in his territory.
Johnson, whom Coach Dick Nolan calls "the best defensive back I have ever seen", is a major factor in the 49ers surge into first place in the Western Division of the National Football Conference.
In a 26-10 victory over Green Bay November 1, the Packers threw only two passes Johnson's way. He broke both up.
In the last two seasons, opponents have thrown 159 passes in his territory and have completed only 57 for 162 yards.
That figures out to two completions a game for 20 yards."Most teams attack with formations and they don't attack Johnson's side of the field," Nolan explained.
Johnson would like more action. He likes the challenge of the man-to-man situation a cornerback has to face.
"I'm a defensive-minded back first," he said. "My job is to keep the receiver from catching the ball. I don't start thinking about interceptions until I'm sure the receiver can't get the ball."
"Some cornerbacks are always thinking about interceptions and that can get you in trouble when you play the ball instead of the man."
Although the job of cornerback is a lonely one-there is no one behind him to help out if his man gets loose-Johnson likes it.
A Little Fear Helps
"There's pressure and also some fear. And I I think a little fear makes a player perform better. At least that's the way it is for me."
Johnson usually gets the toughest wide receiver to cover and he treats them all the same.
"It's a fine line between the best receiver in the league and the others," he said. "they all are good. I never underestimate any of them. I did once and will never forget it."
That happened about six years ago when Johnson played against Red Phillips of the Los Angeles Rams.
" I was a little cocky. Phillips isn't real big and he isn't fast. I was playing in my home town (Los Angeles) and I guess my mid was on other things.
"Phillips caught a lot of passes and made me look real bad. I'll never forget that. Whenever I see a receiver who is small or slow, I remember Phillips, and try even harder."
Football is a seven-day-a-week job for Johnson. On the normal day off - Monday - Johnson goes over the game he played the previous day.
"I think about the things I did wrong. Maybe no one else noticed them, but I know I've never played a perfect game. I'm very critical of myself."
Star in Own Right
"I think about what it takes to play a good game and what I didn't do right." Johnson's emergence in 1969 as an All-Pro cornerback has finally given him an identity.
"I have always been Rafer Johnson's little brother," Jim said. "I'm proud of that, but I always wanted to be something on my own."
Johnson competed in track, football and basketball at Kingsburg High School and then went to Santa Monica City College for a year.
"I was going to give up football when I went to UCLA and concentrated on basketball and track. But I found I had a chance to do something in football, it became No.1 sport," Johnson said.
However, he did compete in track at UCLA and ran the 120-yard high hurdles in 13.9 seconds and also was a 25-foot long jumper.
"The challenge of being Rafer's brother helped. I broke some of his track records because of the incentive," he said.
Jimmy didn't have any plans to play pro football and was surprised when several pro teams sent him questionnaires.
"I filled them all out so I could tell my kids about it someday. Then when I was invited to play in some of the all-star games, it dawned on me that I did have a chance to play pro football."
Johnson was drafted by San Diego of the American Football League and then by the 49ers of the NFL.
"I was high on the chargers at first," Jim recalled. "But they waved a few big bills in front of me and figured I would sign with them.
"They didn't give me credit for being a thinking man."
A San Francisco Fan
When the 49ers offered Johnson a contract, he signed. He liked San Francisco as a city and John Henry Johnson, a former 49er star but no relation, was his favorite player.
Johnson had played both offense and defense at UCLA and was tried as a wide receiver with the 49ers in his rookie year. He caught 34 passes for 627 yards and four touchdowns.
The next year veteran Abe Woodson was switched to offense and Johnson replaced him in the defensive backfield. Jim intercepted five passes and since then has picked off 23 more.
He saved a game against Denver this season with a one-handed interception in the end zone.
"That's the best play I have seen in a long time," defensive backfield coach Berne Miller of the 49ers said.
"Jim was going to intercept and the offensive man interfered with him. But he still got one hand free and caught the ball."
Miller has coached top-notch defensive backs such as John King and Joe Beauchamp. But Miller says Johnson is the best he has ever seen.
"He has confidence in himself, and that's what makes him so good," Miller said. "He thinks he can handle anybody. The opponent has to show him he can't.
"Jim is a great athlete and has a complete knowledge of the game. He's the best I have seen for back-pedaling, which is hard to do.
"He has tremendous reactions and adjusts to any situation very quickly. He's the best cornerback in pro football."
When Nolan took over as head coach three years ago, Johnson found that a new era was starting.
"I had never met him before, but I could tell right away he was a positive thinker. That's the way I am," Jim said.
"The whole picture started to come through. He told us it would take a couple of years. That's what the other coaches had said, too, but nothing ever happened.
"Now we're getting to the top. We're not out of any football game we play, and that's the attitude you have to have."
Nolan, who was an outstanding defensive back for the New York Giants as a player, credits Johnson with pulling the 49ers defense together.
"He keeps his poise. He is a very disciplined athlete. I thought Cornell Green of Dallas was the best cornerback I ever had seen, but that was before I saw Jim."
Nolan added: "Johnson does everything Green does and he's a little faster."
The 32-year old Johnson is in his 10th season with the 49ers and has played against most of the top pass receivers.
Who was the toughest?
McDonald Was a Toughie
"Tommy McDonald-he played for Philadelphia and Los Angeles," Johnson said. "He was an amazing guy. To cover him was an extra challenge. I admire him because he plays the game the way I want to - all out."
"The first time I tackled him, he bounced up like a rubber ball and was back in the huddle before I could even get up. I decided I would do the same thing. After that, every time I tackled him, it would be a race to see who could get back where they belonged the fastest."
"He was quick and had great moves. Not too many receivers have both."
Here's the way Johnson rates some of the other receivers in pro football:
Carroll Dale, Green Bay: "He's cagey like Jimmy Orr of the Colts was. he has good moves and always seems to get open."
Charlie Taylor, Washington: "The fastest receiver in the league. And he has good hands."
Earl McCullough, Detroit: "Not quite as fast as Taylor, but very good. One of the best young players in the league."
Snow is Deceptive
Jack Snow, Los Angeles: "He lulls you to sleep because he doesn't look fast. Then he puts a on a quick burst and beats you on a deep pattern."
Mike Hafner, Denver: "One of the finest. A very underrated player. Works hard and likes contact. Not afraid to block."
Dan Abramowitz, New Orleans: "A fiery one. Lots of moves and a real competitor."
Wendell Tucker, Los Angeles: "Jitterbug". You have to give him lots of room until you see which way he is going."
Fred Biletnikoff, Oakland: "Great finesse and moves. Runs the sideline patterns as well as anyone in pro football."
Warren Wells, Oakland: "Real smooth. He glides down the field and is going faster than he seems to be. Good Hands."
It's quite likely that if all the wide receivers in the league were asked their opinion of James Earl Johnson, they would answer the same.
He's so great they would just as soon not be anywhere near him when a pass is thrown.