In reviewing the career of any defensive player in the NFL, there is a tendency to only examine the player’s sacks, interceptions, and fumble recoveries.
Such a focus ignores a basic goal of every defensive player – to tackle the offensive player who has the ball.
Cleveland Browns linebacker Eddie Johnson, nicknamed “The Assassin,” was a tackling machine over his 10-year career in Cleveland.
Johnson’s tackling, as well as his other solid play on defense and leadership, helped the Browns win four division titles and make five consecutive playoff appearances from 1985 to 1989.
— Vintage Browns (@VintageBrowns) October 18, 2020
We take a look at the life of Eddie Johnson – before, during, and after his NFL playing career.
The Early Years Through High School
Eddie J. Johnson was born on February 3, 1959 in Albany, Georgia.
Albany is located in southwest Georgia.
While Johnson grew up in Albany, the city had a population of approximately 55,000 to 70,000 people.
Johnson attended Dougherty High School in Albany.
After graduating Dougherty High School, Johnson headed to Louisville, Kentucky to attend University of Louisville.
At Louisville, Johnson was a letter-winner in football from 1977 to 1980.
Johnson began his career at Louisville as a defensive back.
In 1977, Louisville had a 7-4-1 record, including a 24-14 loss to Louisiana Tech in the Independence Bowl on December 17, 1977.
Johnson was part of a Louisville defense that posted three shutouts in 1977 – 38-0 over Northern Illinois on September 10, 1977, 33-0 over Tulsa on October 8, 1977, and 56-0 over Marshall on October 29, 1977.
Johnson intercepted a pass in 1978.
Louisville posted a 7-4 record in 1978. With Johnson as part of the defense, Louisville held three opponents to only seven points in 1978 – a 54-7 defeat of South Dakota State on September 9, 1978, a 51-7 win over Northwestern State on October 14, 1978, and a 35-7 victory over Boston University on October 21, 1978.
Before his junior year in 1979, Johnson moved from playing defensive back to playing linebacker.
In a 31-21 Cardinals win over Drake on September 29, 1979, Johnson had 24 tackles, which ranks as the fourth-most tackles in a single game in Louisville history.
In 1979, Louisville had a 4-6-1 record.
Johnson intercepted a pass in 1980 and returned it for 13 yards.
In 1980, Johnson led the Cardinals with 144 tackles.
Louisville had a 5-6 record in 1980.
While at Louisville, Johnson had 457 (313 solo and 144 assisted) tackles, which ranks as the fourth-most tackles in a career in Louisville history.
After Johnson played in the Blue-Gray All Star Game in 1980, he headed to the NFL to play professional football.
The Pro Football Years
Johnson was drafted by the Cleveland Browns in the seventh round of the 1981 NFL draft.
He was the 187th overall pick.
Sam Rutigliano, head coach of the Browns in 1981, recalled the drafting of Johnson:
“(Defensive coordinator) Dave Adolph told me, ‘You better take a look at this kid Johnson. He has speed and he knows how to play.’ Dave was right.”
As a seventh-round draft pick of a team that had won the AFC Central Division title in 1980, there was no guarantee that Johnson would make the Browns.
However, Johnson had a different attitude.
“Being a seventh-round draft choice, no one expected me to make it. The Browns had good linebackers at the time. I came in with the intent of making it. I bought my mom a house with my signing bonus. I didn’t really have the money at the time, but it gave me the extra incentive. She still has the house today. It’s paid for and in her name in Albany, Ga.”
Playing at a height of six feet and one inch and a weight of 220 pounds, Johnson did make the Browns roster as a rookie in 1981.
“[Johnson] was undersized, but that didn’t stop him.”
Johnson played in all 16 regular season games in 1981, but he did not start any of them.
He recovered one fumble and returned one kickoff for seven yards in 1981.
Cleveland had a 5-11 record in 1981.
In 1982, Johnson played in all nine regular season games; the regular season was reduced to nine games because of a players’ strike.
Johnson also started his first regular season game, playing at right outside linebacker, on November 25, 1982 against the Dallas Cowboys.
However, Dallas defeated Cleveland 31-14.
The Browns posted a 4-5 record in 1982.
Johnson’s play contributed to the Browns defense ranking in the NFL regular season in 1982 second in recovered turnovers (28), tied for seventh in recovered fumbles (11), and tied for fourth in interceptions (17).
With an expanded 16-team playoff system in use for the 1982 season, Cleveland’s 4-5 record was sufficient for the Browns to make the playoffs.
Cleveland played the Los Angeles Raiders in a playoff game on January 8, 1983.
Johnson played in, but did not start, the game, and the Browns lost to the Raiders 27-10.
In 1983, Johnson played in all 16, and started the final two, regular season games.
He started at left inside linebacker in a 34-27 Cleveland loss to the Houston Oilers on December 11, 1983.
The following week, on December 18, 1983, in a 30-17 Browns victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers, Johnson again started at left inside linebacker.
Cleveland improved to a 9-7 record in 1983, although it failed to make the playoffs.
While Johnson’s first three seasons with Cleveland were mostly spent playing special teams and backup linebacker, Johnson’s situation changed in 1984.
After starting the final two regular season games of 1983, Johnson started all 16 regular season games in 1984 at left inside linebacker.
On October 14, 1984, Johnson had two interceptions of New York Jets quarterback Pat Ryan; Johnson returned the interceptions for three yards.
Cleveland lost to New York 24-20.
Johnson was credited with half of a sack, in a 23-7 Cleveland win over the Atlanta Falcons on November 18, 1984.
With Johnson at left inside linebacker, the Browns defense had 11 sacks and forced four Falcons turnovers.
The following week, on November 25, 1984, Johnson’s play helped the Browns defense limit the Houston Oilers to 38 “net pass yards” and 147 total yards, as Cleveland defeated Houston 27-10.
Johnson led the Browns in 1984 with 172 tackles (including 108 solo tackles).
Cleveland had a 5-11 record in 1984.
Johnson helped the Browns defense rank in the NFL regular season in 1984 sixth in fewest points allowed (297), second in fewest total passing and rushing yards allowed (4,641), and third in fewest passing yards allowed (2,696).
In 1985, Johnson again started all 16 regular season games at left inside linebacker.
He was also voted defensive co-captain in 1985.
In a Chargers game, Johnson was also credited with half of a sack of future Pro Football Hall of Fame San Diego quarterback Dan Fouts.
The sack knocked Fouts out of the game with a knee injury.
As Johnson described the sack of Fouts after the game, one can get a sense of Johnson’s character in expressing concern about Fouts’ condition.
“We designed [a blitz called “Ted Cover Five”] this week. Bob Golic (the nose tackle) opened a hole and I rushed the A gap between center and guard. I was totally free. No one touched me. . . . I hope the injury isn’t too serious because the NFL needs Dan Fouts.”
Johnson was second on the Browns in 1985 with 148 tackles.
The Browns won the AFC Central Division title with an 8-8 record in 1985.
Johnson helped Cleveland’s defense rank in the NFL regular season in 1985 seventh in fewest points allowed (294) and tied for sixth in lowest average yards per rushing attempt allowed (3.7).
Cleveland met the Miami Dolphins in a playoff game on January 4, 1986.
Johnson started the game, but Miami defeated the Browns 24-21.
For the third consecutive year, Johnson started all 16 regular season games at left inside linebacker in 1986.
In 1986, Johnson was third on Cleveland with 117 tackles.
With a 12-4 record, Cleveland again won the AFC Central Division title in 1986.
The Browns defense, with Johnson at left inside linebacker, ranked in the NFL regular season in 1986 tied for second in recovered fumbles (19).
In the 1986 playoffs, Cleveland first met the New York Jets on January 3, 1987.
Johnson started the game and helped the Cleveland defense have nine sacks against New York.
Cleveland defeated New York 23-20 in double overtime.
The following week, on January 11, 1987, the Browns played the Denver Broncos in the 1986 AFC championship game.
Johnson started the game, but Denver defeated Cleveland 23-20 in overtime.
The 1987 regular season was reduced to 15 games because of another players’ strike.
In addition, most regular players missed three additional regular season games because of the strike; these games were mostly played with “replacement” players.
Johnson played in all 12, and started 11, of the “non-replacement player” games at left inside linebacker in 1987.
In 1987, the Browns had a 10-5 record and, for the third consecutive year, won the AFC Central Division title.
Johnson helped Cleveland’s defense rank in the NFL regular season in 1987 second in fewest points allowed (239), third in fewest total passing and rushing yards allowed (4,264), eighth in fewest passing yards allowed (2,831), tied for sixth in defensive interceptions (23), second in fewest rushing yards allowed (1,433), and tied for fifth in lowest average yards per rushing attempt allowed (3.6).
Cleveland first played the Indianapolis Colts in the 1987 playoffs on January 9, 1988.
While Johnson did not start the game, he made significant contributions, both off and on the field.
Seeing you in that uniform makes me think of another #51, the late great Eddie Johnson. Eddie was one of my favorite players and you remind me of him on the field! #5ive1 #browns pic.twitter.com/GklzK5iuNK
— Todd Mars (@toddmars11) April 17, 2020
After the Colts had tied the game 14-14 just before halftime, Johnson was angry and addressed his team at halftime.
“I try not to let myself get upset at things. But I was mad. There was no way they deserved to be tied with us at 14-14. To let them march right down field on us like they did was upsetting. So I said some things. I said, ‘Hey guys, we’ve got to play twice as good in the second half as we played in the first.’ And I told them we have to make a big play. We have to do something to turn the game our way.”
In addition to his words in the locker room to motivate his team, Johnson made a key play on the field.
After the Colts took the second-half kickoff and moved to the Browns 20-yard line, Johnson hit the arm of Colts quarterback Jack Trudeau on an attempted pass.
Johnson’s hit caused the pass to flutter through the air and enabled Browns safety Felix Wright to intercept it.
Cleveland’s offense then marched 86 yards for a touchdown.
The Browns went on to defeat the Colts 38-21.
About his hit on Trudeau, Johnson said:
“We would have been in trouble without a big play there.”
The following week, on January 17, 1988, for the second consecutive year, the Browns met the Denver Broncos in the AFC championship game.
Johnson started the game, but Cleveland lost to Denver 38-33.
Because of injury, Johnson missed his first NFL (‘non-replacement player”) regular season game in 1988.
He played in 15, and started eight, regular season games at right inside linebacker in 1988.
The Browns posted a 10-6 record in 1988 and earned a “wild-card” playoff berth.
Johnson contributed to Cleveland’s defense ranking in the NFL regular season in 1988 sixth in fewest points allowed (288), sixth in fewest total passing and rushing yards allowed (4,767), and sixth in fewest passing yards allowed (2,847).
Cleveland advanced to play the Houston Oilers in a “wild-card” playoff game on December 24, 1988.
Johnson did not start the game, and the Browns lost to the Oilers 24-23.
Bud Carson replaced Marty Schottenheimer as Cleveland’s head coach in 1989.
With Carson as head coach, the Browns changed from a “3-4” to a “4-3” defense, resulting in one less linebacker on the defense.
Unfortunately for Johnson, he was the “excess” linebacker.
He played in all 16, but did not start any, regular season games in 1989.
The Browns, with a 9-6-1 record, won their fourth AFC Central Division title in five years in 1989.
Johnson’s play contributed to the Browns defense ranking in the NFL regular season in 1989 fourth in fewest points allowed (254), seventh in fewest total passing and rushing yards allowed (4.831), tied for eighth in recovered turnovers (38), tied for second in defensive interceptions (27), seventh in sacks (45), and tied for fifth in lowest average yards per rushing attempt allowed (3.7).
In the 1989 playoffs, Cleveland first played against the Buffalo Bills on January 6, 1990.
Johnson played in, but did not start, the game, as Cleveland (holding the Bills to 49 rushing yards) advanced to the 1989 AFC championship game, defeating the Bills 34-30.
The following week, on January 14, 1990, Cleveland lost to the Denver Broncos 37-21 in the AFC championship game.
Johnson again played in, but did not start, the game.
In 1990, for the second consecutive year, Johnson played in all 16, but did not start any, regular season games.
Cleveland had a 3-13 record in 1990.
— Vintage Browns (@VintageBrowns) October 1, 2019
On August 26, 1991, the Browns released Johnson.
“When the history of the Cleveland Browns is written, there has to be a special chapter for Eddie Johnson. I can’t remember the last time a player came up to me after being released to thank me for giving him the opportunity.”
“On behalf of my family, my wife and my three kids, I’d like to thank Art Modell and the Cleveland Browns organization for the beautiful experience. Being part of this organization has allowed me to do things I would not have been able to do anywhere else. If I go on and play for someone else this year, I’ll still be wearing the Cleveland Browns colors.”
After his release from the Browns, Johnson did not play again in the NFL.
The Years After the NFL
Johnson was married to Teresa.
He had three children, Rahshan, Elise, and Elexis.
After his retirement from the NFL, Johnson became a minister in 1993.
In November, 2000, Johnson was diagnosed with colon cancer.
After his diagnosis, Johnson said:
“God wants to use me.”
He also later stated:
“Pray for me. Pray with me. But don’t feel sorry for me.”
Johnson’s former teammates on the Browns held benefits to help Johnson pay for his medical bills.
During Johnson’s final days, such former Cleveland teammates as Hanford Dixon and Rickey Feacher visited Johnson in the hospital.
“E.J. was always such a fighter. At one point yesterday he took off his oxygen mask and left it off for over an hour as if to send us a message: I will not go down without a fight.”
On January 21, 2003, at the age of 43, Johnson died.
Johnson was posthumously inducted into the Cleveland Browns Legends Program in 2018.
When looking at Johnson’s individual statistics over his 10 years with Cleveland (six interceptions, five fumble recoveries, and five sacks), they may not appear very impressive.
However, three other points should be noted.
First, Johnson was durable.
He played in 107 consecutive regular season and playoff games from 1981 to 1987 (excluding “replacement player” games).
Over his entire 10-year career, he missed playing in only one regular season or playoff game (excluding “replacement player” games).
Second, Johnson was excellent at the basic, and critically important, defensive skill of tackling.
Just during the three years from 1984 to 1986, he amassed 437 tackles.
Third, Johnson was a team leader.
When Johnson spoke to his team at halftime of the January 9, 1988 playoff game against the Colts, it was just one example of Johnson motivating his teammates.
Even after Johnson lost his starting position in 1989, he remained a team leader for Cleveland.
It takes 11 men to form a strong defense in the NFL.
While Johnson may not have posted high individual statistical numbers in certain categories, he was a critical piece of the Cleveland defense, both on and off the field.
When Browns fans recall the successful period for the team from 1985 to 1989, which resulted in four divisional titles, five playoff appearances, three playoff victories, and three appearances in the AFC championship game, they should remember the dependable and solid linebacker play of Eddie “The Assassin” Johnson.