Before the celebrating could commence in the visitors locker room at the Georgia Dome last weekend, Carolina Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson climbed up on a table and had something to say.
The normally reserved Johnson told his teammates to enjoy the NFC South title – their second in as many seasons – but to remember their journey was just beginning. Johnson reminded them he has been with the Panthers since 2007 and still has not won a playoff game.
The Panthers (7-8-1) will be looking for their first postseason win since 2005 Saturday when they host Arizona (11-5) in an NFC wild-card game.
Panthers players and coaches said the message meant more coming from Johnson, a reluctant leader who usually lets linebacker Thomas Davis and others deliver the pre- and post-game talks.
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“When guys that don’t speak a lot, when they actually speak up and say something, guys listen,” Davis said. “Charles is one of our better players on this team, if not our best D-line player. So whenever he steps up and says something, those guys are going to listen. We listen.”
Johnson, 28, who was voted one of six team captains before the season, has evolved in his eighth year in Carolina. Still far from loquacious, he has picked his spots to speak up.
“I’ve just been really expressing myself. I won’t even say leader, just stuff that needs to be said or stuff I feel. I just put it out there,” Johnson said Thursday. “I don’t consider it leading or anything like that. I just try to put stuff out in perspective so the guys can see how bad I care.”
Several of Johnson’s defensive line mates say he’s grown into more of a leadership role this season.
“I feel like any time Charles says something there’s some real meaning behind it because in years past he really hasn’t been (vocal). He leads more by example,” second-year defensive end Wes Horton said.
“But now I think he sees the urgency. In the season when we were almost out of the playoffs, he took it upon himself to not only be a leader of not only the defensive line, but the whole team.”
Johnson has also picked up his play after a slow start that coincided with the loss of Pro Bowl defensive end Greg Hardy, who was placed on the commissioner’s exempt list Sept. 17 while awaiting his jury trial on domestic violence charges.
Johnson, the Panthers’ highest-paid player after signing a six-year, $76 million deal in 2011, had no sacks and only four tackles through the first four games.
He now has 8.5 to lead the Panthers in sacks for the fourth time in the past five seasons.
Johnson had 2.5 sacks during the Panthers’ four-game winning streak to end the regular season, and he combined for 16 quarterback pressures in wins against New Orleans and Tampa Bay in Weeks 14-15.
Defensive tackle Kawann Short said Johnson has been productive all season, even if his statistics didn’t show it.
“A lot of people outside look at stats and what the numbers say,” Short said. “But every day we come in the (meeting) room after a game and Charles played well. Charles did this, Charles did what he’s supposed to do.”
Coach Ron Rivera appointed Johnson a captain during the 2012 season after former linebacker Jon Beason went on injured reserve. Even after being voted a captain this season, Johnson admits he’s not the rah-rah type.
“I’m not a natural leader, never considered being anything like that. I like leading by example, no talking, just let my play lead,” he said. “This year I’ve just been pressed to talk and get guys motivated.
“I’m one of the older guys here, even though I’m still young. Guys look at you like that. Some guys need advice, need motivation. I don’t mind doing it. But I’m not comfortable doing it.”
Horton said Johnson helps keep players accountable, calling them out if he doesn’t believe they’re working hard enough.
“For him the resume’s already out there. He’s put it on tape. He knows what it takes to play at a high level,” Horton said. “And when he doesn’t see it done, he’s one of the first guys to let you know you’ve got to pick your game up.”
Rivera called Johnson a “very unique individual,” whose guarded nature belies how much he cares about winning.
“Lately, he’s really been very emotional and very outspoken, which is very uncharacteristic. I’m glad he’s doing it,” Rivera said. “You talk about guys who can back it up by what they do, that’s impressive to me. And he’s been that way for us, especially the last four weeks of the season.”
Davis, the Panthers’ longest-tenured player, said he was getting ready to offer similar remarks after the Falcons game before Johnson beat him to it.
“He’s a leader in this locker room. And he was absolutely on point with everything he said about, ‘Enjoy this win right now, but we have to remain focused,’ ” Davis said. “We don’t want to go one-and-out like we did last year.”
As he wrapped up a brief interview, Johnson laughed when told teammates said his postgame speech made an impression.
“We’ll see Saturday, right?”