The breaking point was near. Bobby Johnson could feel it coming.
He had spent nine years as a coach with five NFL teams, beginning with the Buffalo Bills in 2010, yet had not advanced beyond the position of assistant offensive line coach. There were stints where he coached tight ends separately or while serving as an assistant O-line coach, but he never could land the role to which he aspired when he entered his chosen profession as a graduate assistant at the University of Akron in 1995: to be the one in charge of a line.
Frustration mounted to the point where he no longer could conceal it.
"There were times where I got a little ticked off, bitter, jaded," Johnson admitted. "I thought, ‘This is BS. Why do we keep recycling the same guys?' And, 'Why did that guy get a shot?' And, 'Why not me?’
“After a while, my wife was kind of like, ‘What do you tell our kids all the time?’ I grumbled, because it was the same thing my dad used tell me: ‘Control what you can control.’ So I went back to doing what I knew, and that was just grinding as hard as I possibly can. Grinding it out."
Johnson's big break finally came last January, when the Bills brought him back for a second stint, this time to replace Juan Castillo as their offensive line coach. Johnson couldn't think of a better spot to climb to the next rung of his career ladder.
“I love this place, because it is so much like my hometown," the Akron native said. "This is a very unique environment in the National Football League. It’s the wonderful blend of a college feel, but you’re an NFL team. And not many places can say that. You can probably count those type of places on one hand in this league, if that."
Johnson, 46, also finds himself at the heart of what might very well be the area that, after quarterback, will likely have the greatest influence on the team's fortunes. The Bills' offensive line is undergoing a major overhaul. Between additions made via free agency and the draft, the group could have as many as five new starters.
The Bills tapped Johnson to serve as foreman of the reconstruction project largely due to the success he had while involved in a similar situation last year as assistant offensive line coach of the Indianapolis Colts. The Colts' line had been a disaster before Johnson, who had spent the previous three seasons as tight ends coach for the Oakland Raiders, and offensive line coach David DeGuglielmo arrived in 2018. After inserting three new starters – rookie guard Quinton Nelson, rookie tackle Braden Smith and veteran guard Matt Slauson – who after suffering a season-ending injury was replaced by Matt Glowinski, claimed off waivers from the Seattle Seahawks in 2017 – the unit improved dramatically.
“There couldn’t have been a better situation than last year in Indy to prepare me for this," said Johnson, who also was a tight ends coach for the Jacksonville Jaguars and tight ends coach/assistant offensive line coach for the Detroit Lions. "They went from arguably one of the worst to arguably the best in the span of a year. And they did it with two rookies and a guy they got off the waiver wire.
"So it’s not like it was like some miracle. It wasn’t like it was some magic potion. It wasn’t like they went out and got the second coming of John Hannah and Jonathan Ogden. They got two kids in the draft that because of the environment, because of the culture, because of the coaching, because of the type of kids they chose, because the order in which they put those guys, it worked.”
The players the Bills added for an O-line resurgence of their own are well aware of Johnson's role with the Colts. Although he was only at Indianapolis for one season, it was enough to enhance Johnson's credibility with the most vital piece the club added in free agency, center Mitch Morse.
"When you come from a place like that, you know that his word holds merit," Morse said. "Not that these guys wouldn’t think he holds merit in general, but it definitely helps. (The Colts) definitely had a good blueprint, they were doing something right.
“It’s a very interesting dynamic that he’s walking into, which is six free agents, a bunch of rookies, and a few guys who were here in the last regime. So we kind of have a completely clean slate. He does, too, and you kind of go from there. It’s always tough when you’re thrown in there as a new coach, and especially your first time, but he’s really kind of picking up right where he needs to and just kind of hitting the ground running."
Frank Reich, the former Bills quarterback who became the Colts' head coach last season, believes Buffalo has gotten a "great offensive line coach" who is "very detailed" in all that he does to get the most out of his players. Reich credits Johnson's tireless approach to his job with having as much to do with the remarkable turnaround of Indianapolis' line as anything else.
"His work ethic is second to none," Reich said. "I think he only sleeps two or three hours a night. He’s crazy."
Much of that stems from what Johnson learned by watching his father, who passed away just before the start of his son's first NFL season as the assistant to then-Bills O-line coach Joe D’Alessandris. Elmer Johnson was a postman. His son never saw him miss a day of work in his 35 years of employment.
"His dad was this guy who Bobby talked about all the time," Reich said.
Even more amazing was that the elder Johnson didn't exactly make things easy on himself with the sort of hours he kept.
"Hey, he would be out with the night owls and then come rolling in at the wee hours," Johnson said. "He'd maybe lay down for an hour, pop right back up, iron his uniform, put it right back on, and boom! He’s out delivering two routes."
Those never-give-up-never-give-in lessons were only reinforced by Johnson's football coaches, beginning when he was an offensive guard and defensive end at Akron's Hoban High School (where he once received Ohio lineman-of-the-year honors). They continued through his career as an offensive lineman at Miami (Ohio) University.
Last year, Johnson spent a good portion of the wee hours at the Colts' facility. He often would watch video while putting together notes and blocking-scheme thoughts until he could no longer keep his head up. Sometimes, he slept at his desk.
Two goals drove him. One was to do his part to help fix all that had been wrong with the Colts' offensive line. The other was to shed "assistant" from his title.
“I did whatever it took, because I knew that if I didn’t do that, I had no chance of getting an opportunity,” Johnson said. “I told Frank, shortly after getting this job, that I couldn’t have gotten this job without the experience of last year. Nothing could have prepared me better for this job than last year at Indy – how we did it, some of the things we did to aid in that, maybe some of the things on how to develop the culture in the O-line room. Because to me, really, that was the biggest piece that probably goes unseen.”
In contributing to the development of that culture, Johnson and Guglielmo hammered the players with heavy doses of tough love. They reminded the incumbents of all of the harsh criticism they received the previous year and during previews for the 2018 season. Like it or not, the outside perception was "all of the shortcomings of this team are all because of you."
Not all of that was true, of course. The Colts had other issues, including a shoulder injury to quarterback Andrew Luck. However, as Johnson pointed out, "There's some responsibility on you for how bad you've been. And you can either let it be a self-fulfilling prophecy or you can quit feeling sorry for yourselves, pull yourselves up by your bootstraps, stick your chin out and say, 'Damn it! No more!' And that's basically what happened."
He believes it will take every bit as much of that mindset for the Bills to transform their line. From what Johnson has seen during his offseason encounters with Morse and fellow newcomers such as Spencer Long, Quinton Spain and Jon Feliciano at guard; Ty Nsekhe, LaAdrian Waddle and Cody Ford at tackle, as well as incumbents Dion Dawkins at tackle and Wyatt Teller and Vlad Ducasse at guard, there is plenty of mental toughness to go around.
“Yeah, there’s a major overhaul here," Johnson said. "There’s competition. I think the guys realize it. I think the guys that were brought in to compete are of the fiber that they understand that, they don’t shy away from it. I think the intensity of the competition is only going to ramp up as we get closer and closer to training camp, and throughout training camp. I think all the guys that are here are of the mindset that it’s only going to be like iron sharpens iron. They’re all different personalities, but the one common thread they all have is they’re all smart, they’re all really physically and mentally tough. And, so far, I think they’re dependable."
Johnson demands that the players all be dialed-in during meetings and practices. He gives quizzes to gauge their level of attentiveness.
"Every coach has their own kind of dynamic, and he kind of has his figured out at kind of the infancy of his career as an offensive line coach," Morse said. "And that’s pretty cool to be a part of. Hopefully, we’ll be able to look down in a few years and he’ll have such a record as being this great coach and being able to say, ‘We were in the inaugural class of Coach Johnson’s career.’ "
For Johnson, the mission is fairly basic. Get his linemen to create room in the running game and protect Josh Allen well enough so he has the maximum amount of time to throw. Easy to say, much harder to achieve.
“And you protect him inside-out, set the depth and the width of the pocket," Johnson said. "And by God, that is, a lot of times, just a matter of mentality. ‘I refuse to get beat inside. I refuse to allow this guy to hold his ground at this point.’ I believe it was Joe Moore, the legendary line coach at Notre Dame, who said, ‘There’s no greater pleasure in the world than taking a grown man against his will from point A to point B.’ However I get that out of them, we’re going to get that out. And the guys that can do that will be the ones that play and the ones that can’t do that will be the ones that don’t play or not be here. That may sound very brutal, but that’s just kind of how it is. It’s the nature of the business.”
Johnson believes in coaching players hard, the way he was coached in college and the way he saw others coach at the collegiate and NFL levels. Five previous NFL stops have taught him that the clock is always ticking and coaching jobs have a limited shelf life.
"I don't have time to sugarcoat things, I don't have time to try to placate anybody," Johnson said. "I'm just honest with them. And just my time in the NFL, I found that the players appreciate that rather than being sold a bill of goods. They might not like the message, but they appreciate the honesty of the message because nothing's worse than being told something and then it not be true.
“Hey, there are 32 of these jobs, and I've got one. I’m going to do whatever it takes to dig my fingernails into it and not let it go. There’s a lot of guys that want this. I know, because I was that guy for a long time."