That man, wrestling for the ball? That’s the winner of the JMMA.
As men played for their jobs and coaches watched, deciding who to keep, I issued a challenge to four men: Go out and win the James Mungro Memorial Award presented by (sponsor pending).
None paid any attention, of course — they had careers and livelihoods to worry about — but it certainly seemed like one did.
It wasn’t Greg Hickman. The fourth-string defensive tackle had a couple brief moments to engage the imagination. What if he did this all the time? How good would he be?. But that’s not how fourth-string defensive tackles are made. The Jaguars’ second- and third-string interior lineman bottled him up for most of the night. By the end, Hickman’s fate had been determined. He was one of six players the Lions cut Saturday afternoon.
It wasn’t Jed Collins. The fullback spent the preseason fulfilling his position’s stereotype. He was an unheralded blocking back, the only starter on the team nobody talked about, and never touched the ball. Friday, he delivered two crushing blocks. The Lions announcers talked about him being an ordained minister. There was hope for something more.
Early in the first quarter, Matt Stafford looked deep and found no one open. Collins jogged wide open in the flat. Stafford checked down, spotted Collins, pump faked and threw the ball away.
Later it happened again. This time: gold.
Jed did everything I asked and maintained his identity doing it. But after three preseason games, Collins didn’t inspire the devotion required to follow his career. When Blaine Hardy, Jose Alvarez, Chris Bootcheck, Rodney Austin and Jacques McClendon do something they become life events. I never felt the same way about Collins. He deserved a better fate.
It wasn’t George Winn. On his first touch he got a first down. On his second, he hit a guy so hard a buckle on his chin strap fell off. Two carries later: Fumble. He recovered, scoring a one-yard touchdown, but finished the day with seven rushes for 13 yards. Those number don’t signify somebody who wins anything. In a different compeition, Winn get another chance. He would be one of two finalists and head into Week 4. But I can’t hold off George Johnson any longer.
In the Friday preview, I mentioned I didn’t have the same irrational love I did for Johnson in Week 2 that I had in Week 1. The fuzzy feelings came back in the second quarter. Johnson took one hard step outside, then swam inside for an virtually unmolested shot at the quarterback. I involuntarily yelled, “OH GEORGE! OH GEORGIE BOY!”
I never understood the love until then. It’s his speed. I like fast people. George Johnson is fast. His first step, his hands, his long strides — it all combines to make him play a step quicker than most. And when you’re a step quicker than most, it gives the appearance of hustle even if it’s uncelar whether you’re actually trying harder than the guy next to or not.
While I fell in love with George Johnson’s game all over again the difference Friday was his leap in post-whistle antics. In the first quarter he wrestled the ball out of a clearly down Jaguar three seconds after the whistle had gone, and earned some extra camera time because of it. In the second he got involved in a scuffle between the two teams after a Toby Gerhart run. That’s not all that spectacular — until you realize Johnson was on the sideline for the play:
The man ran onto the field — right in front of the camera — to get involved. Great hustle. Great awareness.
Johnson has a story similar to other JMMA winners. An undrafted free agent out of Rutgers, he signed with the Tampa Buccaneers in 2010 and spent three off and on years with them, playing in a total of seven games. When Tampa Bay cut him for the final time, he moved to the Vikings. He spent the past two years in Minnesota, playing in just two games.But here’s where Johnson’s story diverges from McClendon and Austin: He’s gotten publicity. He had a training camp feature written about him and a number of stories have trickled out, in the past week or two. Johnson isn’t just our champ. His play made him the bloggers’ champ and his story made the beat writers’ champ.
Johnson will make the team. He’ll be a part of the defensive end rotation as a pass rush specialist. But soon the bloggers and beat writers will look elsewhere. Their focus will revolve around Calvin Johnson and Matt Stafford and “Boy, the Lions are good,” or “Boy, the Lions are bad.”
And then on some snowy day in Green Bay or Chicago or New England, Johnson is going to make a play.
Everyone else will have to think for a moment. “Who’s that guy? His number looks familiar.”
They’ll realize it after a couple seconds, but we’ll know all along.
He is George Johnson.
He’ is the winner of the James Mungro Memorial Award.