Carolina Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson has a lot of business and charitable interests, including a still-in-the-works restaurant in a historic Fourth Ward fire station.
So Johnson will have plenty to keep him busy when he retires. But the 10-year veteran isn’t done with football just yet.
Johnson, 30, who is rehabbing a hamstring injury, said Friday he wants to play next season. And despite this year’s disappointing results, Johnson says his preference is to stay with the Panthers, the only team he’s ever played for.
“I’d rather lose with these guys than win with anybody else,” Johnson said. “These are my guys I know they come to work every day. I can play with them and have fun and do what I want, and also work at the same time. There’s not a lot of places where you’re going to be able to do that.”
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Johnson briefly flirted with another NFC South team last offseason when he visited the Tampa Bay Buccaneers before rejoining the Panthers. Johnson ended up signing a one-year, prove-it deal (worth $3 million) after Carolina had released him in a cost-cutting move.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera says Johnson has proven he’s worth bringing back, calling Johnson the most consistent defensive lineman this season.
“It’s about that steady, consistent play. I know people want to see these double-digit sack numbers. But what you see with Charles is the impact he makes throughout the game, the way he plays the game,” Rivera said.
“And he’s been a tremendous leader. We’ll see how it all goes, but I’d love to have him back.”
Johnson is tied for third on the team with four sacks, well off the double-digit totals he posted early in his career. But he leads the Panthers with 24 quarterback pressures and three forced fumbles.
But Johnson said he’s not satisfied.
“We ain’t winning. So I’m not pleased at all,” Johnson said. “I’m going to do whatever it takes to help my team win.”
The past two days that’s meant pushing his rehab hard in the hopes of playing Monday night at Washington. Johnson missed last week’s win at San Diego, but will make the trip to Washington regardless.
Rivera suggested last week Johnson, a native of Hawkinsville, Ga., might target the Dec. 24 game against his home-state Atlanta Falcons for his return. But Johnson wasn’t ready to rule himself out this week.
“I’m not trying to shut nothing down,” he said. “I’m just trying to finish strong.”
Johnson is one of five Panthers defensive linemen who will be unrestricted free agents after the season – half of the 10 players in that position group.
The list includes Pro Bowl defensive tackle Kawann Short and defensive end Mario Addison, the Panthers’ sack leader with 7.5.
The Panthers have exercised the fifth-year, club option on defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, who understands the defensive line meeting room could undergo a big change this winter.
“It’s looked different every year I’ve been here. That’s the business we’re in,” Lotulelei said. “But I think we’ve got some core guys (eligible for free agency) like Chuck, who’s been a leader since I got here.”
Johnson has been a defensive captain for several seasons, but has never been much of a rah-rah guy. But coaches and teammates say Johnson sets the tone for the other members of the front four with his practice habits and steadying influence.
“Chuck’s been huge, man. He’s been a leader of our room since I got here,” Lotulelei said. “He’s a quiet guy. But with our group he’s real vocal (and) he leads by example. ... Since I got here, he hasn’t stopped teaching me. He hasn’t stopped helping me. He’s meant a lot to our room.”
Johnson has missed a combined eight games the past two seasons because of separate hamstring injuries. But he says his body feels good enough to play again in 2017.
He was non-committal when asked whether he would play on a team-friendly deal again.
“I don’t know. When that time comes we’ll have to see. My mindset is different from what it was last year,” Johnson said. “Obviously, you still want to get paid. I think that would be in any job. But you definitely want to be happy where you go. You don’t want to do anything that’s not going to make you happy.”
For the past decade, Johnson’s happy place has been Charlotte. And no amount of government red tape he’s cut through with his restaurant endeavor will change that.
Johnson bought the old firehouse from teammate Ryan Kalil last year for $1.6 million. He hopes workers soon can begin moving dirt for the restaurant – CJ’s 4th Ward Fire House.
“This is my first time going through this process and it isn’t what I was expecting. I didn’t know you had to wait to get this permit and get that permit,” Johnson said. “Hopefully at the end of this year we can start some construction. Hopefully we can see something going up and going down.”
Johnson also hopes he’s not going anywhere.
Carolina Panthers career sacks leaders
Carolina Panthers career leaders in forced fumbles
Changing of the guard?
Five of the 10 defensive linemen on the Panthers’ active roster are eligible for free agency after the season. The list: