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February 17, 2020

“I already know it’s a good decision” | Johnson looking to make Winnipeg his football home

Josh Johnson had choices, and when a guy enters Canadian Football League free agency, the importance of that can’t be overstated.

After all, a constantly ringing cell phone and an inbox full of messages sure as heck beats the alternative.

Yet Johnson – the veteran defensive back who signed with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers last week in what is being hailed across the league as a sneaky-good addition – also knew there was much more to being a free agent than simply the financial component.

It’s about that, absolutely. But it’s also about fit in a scheme and about familiarity with new teammates. And in the specific case of Johnson and his new team, it’s about the positive reputation the Bombers have built over the last few years.

“I had a few offers… I was talking with Calgary, with Winnipeg and still in contact with Edmonton,” said Johnson in a conversation from his offseason base in Florida. “But talking to different guys around the league and the guys who play in Winnipeg and they were all talking about the organization and how it changes you as a player, about how much they loved playing there.

“I know they have a great coach and playing against Coach O’Shea and seeing how he coaches makes you want to play for him. Being a small league you hear so many different stories about playing for different teams. A lot of it is from coaches and when you are around guys who understand the game it makes you want to be a part of it. Talking to so many guys, it had me stuck on coming to Winnipeg.

“Plus,” Johnson added with a chuckle, “I already know it’s a good decision because I’ve had so many people welcome me to Winnipeg. It’s really been ridiculous the response from fans, different players and they’re all telling me I’m going to love being there.”

The Bombers’ secondary will once again be undergoing a makeover this offseason, having lost Winston Rose to the Cincinnati Bengals and Marcus Sayles to the Minnesota Vikings. That made landing a veteran like Johnson paramount in helping fill those vacancies.

The 29-year-old Purdue product started 17 games for the Eskimos last season at both cornerback and halfback and has 64 starts in his four seasons in the CFL with B.C., Ottawa, Hamilton and Edmonton.

He’s an excellent communicator as well, as evidenced last season when he was one of the Eskimo defenders mic’d up by TSN for a game against the Stampeders and could be heard calling out the plays before they happened and helping teammates make the same read.

It’s that skill, combined with his physical skillset, which made him a popular name when CFL free agency opened.

A couple of facts behind that…

Johnson was twice named to the Big Ten’s All-Academic Team during his days with the Boilermakers while majoring in leadership studies. And then during his first stop in B.C. he was surrounded by key influencers who hammered home the importance of mental and physical preparation.

“I learned the game then from Coach Mark Washington, who is now the DC (defensive coordinator) in Hamilton. He taught me a lot,” said Johnson. “I came in as a SAM and blitzed a lot and we had one of the harder GMs in the league in Wally Buono. He was tough. I couldn’t make a lot of mistakes because I had Adam Bighill beside me and Solomon Elimimian on the other side of me. I had no choice but to understand the game.”

“Those guys brought me in to watch film, helped me study the ‘Waggle’, seeing the chip blocks and when they are bringing in the max protection. It was just a lot of little things about understanding the game and once you get that, the game starts to slow down for you. Now I can explain that to the younger kids and they can understand it.

“I would say my biggest strength is being a student of the game and understanding down and distance, the offence you’re playing against and doing your film work. You have to study tendencies, know their strengths, our weaknesses and where they might attack. It’s about doing your homework.”

That – the homework part – was critical in Johnson making his decision to come to Winnipeg. It didn’t hurt, too, to get some texts and calls from current Bombers before and after he had made his decision.

“I spoke with Winston Rose, with Nick Taylor,” Johnson explained. “Willie J (Jefferson) made the biggest push. He FaceTimed me and when I told him I was hitting free agency he said, ‘Man, you need to c’mon down to Winnipeg.’ He let me know he was going to come back to Winnipeg and once I heard that, that was enough for me.

“My boy Adam Bighill, we played in B.C. together and he shot me a text and he put a smile on my face because he said he’s so excited to be able to play with me again and see us flying around. Everyone has told me how much fun I’m going to have being a Blue Bomber.”

“So much goes into a decision like this. You have to know your style of game and how it might fit. You can’t just go to the money. Of course everyone wants to get paid, but sometimes you have to put yourself in the right system where you know you can be successful. I’ve seen so many guys excel in that system in Winnipeg.

“I’ve done my homework and seen the different types of defences they run. And then it’s the number of guys they’ve had in that program that have made plays and have been successful. Plus, they have so many weapons on offence with everybody coming back… I know they’ve lost 3-4 guys (to the NFL), but that just speaks of what they’re doing there.”

What Johnson wants now is to not only be a positive difference-maker for the Bombers in 2020, but to do enough to be wanted back. He’s bounced around the CFL during his days up here, the years sandwiched around a two-year stint with the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2016-17.

Now he’d like some stability, as much as there can be in this game.

“I hope I can have a good season and make some plays and then they think about extending me,” he said. “I want to find a place and call it my home for football. I want to find a stable home and say, ‘This is where I play.’ And I’d love it if that was in Winnipeg.”