Pepper Johnson was not wearing any rings on his fingers Tuesday when he held his first news conference as the Buffalo Bills’ new defensive line coach.
However, he said he does occasionally sport his Super Bowl rings. And he has five of them, so he conceivably could fill up every digit on one of his large hands with his NFL championship bling.
That record of winning, the Bills hope, makes Johnson ideally suited to command the Bills’ defensive line meeting room.
Johnson takes over a veteran unit that includes: Mario Williams, the highest paid defensive player in the league; Kyle Williams, an eight-year veteran who probably knows more about proper technique than the average NFL D-line coach; and Marcell Dareus, a former third overall draft pick who sometimes goes by the nickname “Mr. Big Stuff.” All three of them played in the Pro Bowl last month.
The Bills knew they needed somebody with credibility to coach the defensive line when Anthony Weaver, himself a former player, left to join the Cleveland Browns’ coaching staff.
“Absolutely,” said Bills head coach Doug Marrone. “If every defensive line coach had an opportunity to coach a group of players, I would think that our group of defensive linemen would be somewhere near the top if not at the top.
“It’s very important you bring in the right type of coach for them, to not keep their game going the same way – keep it stagnant – but to grow. He brings a lot to the table as far as making sure that technically they’re going to grow – whether it’s using their hands, how do they attack, how do they pass rush – but he’s also going to bring a lot to the game as far as experience and what it takes to win. That’s something that will start with that group but will gravitate to the rest of the team because of the success he’s had.”
Johnson, 49, won two of his Super Bowl rings with the New York Giants during his 13-year NFL playing career. He won three more during his 13-year tenure as a defensive assistant under Bill Belichick with the New England Patriots.
After both playing and coaching for Belichick, Johnson said it was time to get out from under Belichick’s wings. He said he’s eager to put the focus on Buffalo, not New England.
“I don’t really want to talk about that as much,” Johnson said of the Pats. “I don’t want to say that I forgot those years. That really made up Pepper Johnson. But in order for me to move on, I have to start that process. I can’t keep going back to my relationship or my career with the Patriots. We can just move on. Hey, it’s all built up. It’s in this big old belly. ... I have a lot to offer, and I’m definitely going to do it.”
In New England, Johnson was passed over for the defensive coordinator job in 2012 when Matt Patricia was given the title. Johnson said he aspires to be a coordinator someday.
“Yes, I think that is an ultimate dream,” he said. “Can it happen? Will it happen? I don’t know. I’m living for this moment. I’m living for 2014.”
“I’ve already learned a lot from Jim Schwartz and Donnie just in staff meetings now,” he said, referring to the Bills’ defensive coordinator and Donnie Henderson, the team’s secondary coach. “I’m quite sure I’m going to learn a lot this year, and I’m looking forward not just to coaching these guys but working with these gentlemen.”
Johnson’s NFL mentors, Bill Parcells and Belichick, both are tough taskmasters. In an interview with The News a few years ago, Johnson said he’s the kind of guy who would have loved to have played for Bobby Knight, the legendary basketball coach and a famous disciplinarian.
“You need to be firm in this business,” Johnson said at the time. “You can’t have your coaches relax. Relax for what? It’s not a comfortable game.”
Johnson said he considers himself a demanding coach.
“Yes, because I think the sport demands a lot out of you. I think you really need to have that.”
Johnson said the more players embrace a team-first concept, the easier a coach’s job becomes.
“That’s when I feel like I have accomplished something, that I’ve gotten across to those guys and they’re out there working for each other, and they believe in each other, and it makes the game come second nature, and they can be more aggressive,” Johnson said. “Until then, I have a little carving, a little drafting to do to get that format across so that everybody is working on the same page. We can’t go out there playing as individuals. We can’t go out there thinking selfishly. We all have to have the same track and stay focused on a common goal.”
Teamwork was a subject Johnson kept bringing up during a half-hour meeting with the media.
“I think I have winner mentality in my blood,” he said. “But it’s not just me. ... Football is the ultimate sport. It takes not just 11 guys on the field, but it takes the practice squad guys, it takes the coaches, it takes the people in the cafeteria to all be supportive and everybody just feeling together. That’s what really makes a winning organization. It’s not just the marquee players, it’s the lowest person on the totem pole, and that may not be an appropriate way to say it, but everyone – that builds a winning attitude, that builds winning.”