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How Browns RB D’Ernest Johnson went from a fishing boat to the NFL – Cleveland Browns Blog

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BEREA, Ohio — Seemingly, not a day went by that D’Ernest Johnson didn’t pester Tim Ruskell, who’d just taken over running the Orlando Apollos of the newly formed Alliance of American Football league.

“I know he kept getting tired of me calling him,” Johnson said. “They already had all their running backs. But I was still calling. Every day, ‘Did anything change? Do you guys need a running back?’ The same thing.”

Johnson had just spent the previous few weeks in 2018 making a living catching mahi-mahi off the coast of Key West, Florida, both selling the fish and taking tourists on fishing excursions.

Despite a standout college career at South Florida, Johnson had gone undrafted, then unsigned by the NFL, due in part to a rather slow 40-yard-dash time of 4.81 seconds.

Johnson, however, wasn’t ready to give up on football, even as it seemed that football had given up on him. Unable to get his own agent to call him back, Johnson started messaging the social media accounts of teams from the AAF, including the Apollos.

Then, through a college teammate who’d been invited to play for the Apollos, Johnson got Ruskell’s phone number. Ruskell, who’d been GM of the Seattle Seahawks from 2005-09, was already getting inundated with calls and messages from players looking for a final shot. But, as Ruskell, puts it, Johnson’s persistence asking for a tryout “was at another level.”

“That persistence got him the workout, for sure,” Ruskell recalled. “I said, ‘This guy wants this too bad — we have got to do something.’”

That persistence carried Johnson all the way to last Thursday night.

With the Cleveland Browns missing star running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt due to calf injuries, Johnson rushed for 146 yards in his first career NFL start, propelling the beaten-up Browns to a 17-14 victory over the Denver Broncos in Cleveland.

Johnson scored a touchdown on the opening drive. Then, late in the fourth quarter, he finished off the Broncos with a game-clinching, tackle-breaking, first-down run on third-and-long.

“D’Ernest Johnson to me is a warrior and a great teammate,” said head coach Kevin Stefanski, who handed Johnson the game ball as he was mobbed by his teammates in the postgame locker room. “What he has fought through in his career and then to go have a night like that and to end it how he did. … I thought it was just outstanding.”

To Johnson, the whole night still seems surreal. His boyhood idol was LeBron James. During his postgame interview, Johnson didn’t realize yet that James had tweeted about him. He was speechless — “Lebron? LeBron James?” he kept repeating. Now, he’s planning to blow up a print of the tweet to get it framed.

“That night, I was just in shock,” said Johnson, who said he couldn’t get to sleep until 5 a.m. because of the adrenaline rush. “Like, did this all really happen?”

Johnson’s disbelief is understandable.

After getting off the fishing boat in August of 2018, he moved to Gainesville, Florida, and got a job as a personal trainer, so he could work out at the same gym on the side. While Johnson and his girlfriend messaged the AAF team accounts, his mom emailed random people connected to teams from the Canadian Football League.

When Johnson arrived at the Apollos’ training camp in January, he was the fifth-string running back. But his toughness, versatility and hands quickly caught the attention of head coach Steve Spurrier, the legendary former Florida Gators coach. During one of the first practices, Spurrier summoned Johnson over.

“He was like, ‘What’s your name?’ He didn’t know my name or nothing,” Johnson said. “I told him and he said, ‘OK, I’m gonna call you Ernie — good job, Ernie.’”

Johnson made the Apollos as their third running back, but eventually became one of the top players in the league.

“He might not run a good 40, but his burst was as good as anybody’s,” Ruskell said. “And every time he got his name called, whether it be practice or whatever part in the game, he would do something. He just stood out.”

The AAF would shut down eight weeks into the season. But Johnson had enough tape for his new agent, Aston Wilson, to get him another look from the NFL, and, ultimately, Cleveland, with which he signed as a free agent in 2019.

Johnson now has a motto he lives by that he calls the “slow grind.” Nothing comes easy and nothing comes fast. The fishing boat. The calls to Ruskell. The past two-plus seasons backing up Chubb and Hunt, manning special teams and clinging to that tenuous roster spot.

Before the Denver game, Johnson contemplated that story, and even watched his mini-documentary. And he knew his slow grind was going to come full circle. The persistence was about to pay off.

“To see how far I came and to know what it took,” Johnson said. “The slow grind, you have to trust the process no matter what you’re going through. … and believe in yourself.”



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Cincinnati Bengals’ Zac Taylor rewards team’s patience with first playoff win in 31 years

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CINCINNATI — The Cincinnati Bengals showed patience with Zac Taylor after just six wins in his first two years as their head coach.

Following Saturday’s wild-card win over the Las Vegas Raiders, Taylor said the opportunity to coach a third season, one that produced an AFC North title and the franchise’s first playoff win in 31 years, likely wouldn’t have happened elsewhere in the NFL.

“Personally, if I coached at any other organization in football, I probably wouldn’t be here right now in the third year,” Taylor said. “That’s the truth.”

Taylor said he gave a game ball to team president Mike Brown, who stuck with Taylor after two seasons filled with losses. The third-year coach said he and the coaching staff owe so much to Brown for the patience he exhibited despite 26 losses in their first two campaigns.

After the Bengals went 4-11-1 in 2020, Brown issued a statement offering a vote of confidence in Taylor and said the franchise was “bullish” on Taylor’s future.

“We are not discouraged, but instead feel motivated and confident that next year will reap the benefits of the work that has been done to date,” Brown said in the January 2020 statement. “We must capitalize on the opportunities in front of us.”

Taylor rewarded that patience by leading the Bengals to their first playoff berth and AFC North title since 2015, followed by Saturday’s wild-card victory.

Cincinnati’s fortunes were bolstered when the Bengals drafted quarterback Joe Burrow with the first overall pick in the 2020 draft. After the Bengals clinched their playoff berth with a win over Kansas City on Week 17, Burrow said his pre-draft meeting at the league’s scouting combine solidified his belief in the coach.

“I knew exactly what kind of coach that we had and I knew exactly where I wanted to be,” Burrow said. “He’s a great offensive mind and a great leader of men. He does a great job, and I couldn’t have asked for a better situation.”

Before he left the interview room after Saturday’s win, Bengals tight end C.J. Uzomah made it a point to praise Taylor. Uzomah said the culture that Taylor and the staff have created in Cincinnati played a key role in the turnaround.

Uzomah said it’s up to the players to show why Taylor should win the NFL’s coach of the year award.

“We’ll have to prove it and win a Super Bowl,” Uzomah said.

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Buffalo Bills make playoff history with 7 touchdown drives in blowout win vs. New England Patriots

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ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — The Buffalo Bills didn’t just beat the New England Patriots. They made a statement to the entire NFL.

The Bills dominated the teams’ third meeting in 41 days, winning 47-17 at home to move on to the Divisional round of the playoffs. Buffalo scored a touchdown on all seven of their possessions, becoming the first team in the Super Bowl era to score a TD on each of their first seven drives of a playoff game, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

With the win, the Bills have beaten the Patriots twice by double-digits in a single season (33-21 in Week 16), becoming the first team to do so since Bill Belichick became head coach.

Dating back to that game in Week 16, the Bills’ last 13 drives against the Patriots have yielded 11 scores (10 touchdowns and one field goal). During that stretch, the only thing that stopped the Buffalo offense was the clock.

Not only did the offense put up an impressive performance, but the Bills continued to show improvements in areas that have caused issues throughout the season. The running game was effective and the offensive line that has had a rollercoaster year set the tempo.

But the most impressive part of the game for the Bills was the performance of quarterback Josh Allen. Coming into the game, one of the big questions was if Allen could step up in freezing temperatures. He did far more than that with temperatures below 10 degrees throughout the game, putting together one of the best performances of his career.

Allen continued his stellar performance against the Patriots from a few weeks prior, completing 21/25 passes (84%) for 308 yards and five touchdowns, in addition to six carries for 66 yards. It is the highest completion percentage in a playoff game with 25 or more attempts since Aaron Rodgers in the 2010 Divisional Playoffs (86.1%)

He became the third player in the Super Bowl era with at least 150 pass yards and 50 rush yards in a single half of a playoff game, per Elias, and joined Drew Brees (2009) and Russell Wilson (2020) as the only quarterbacks to throw for five touchdowns against a Belichick-coached team.

Allen’s performance included two touchdown passes to tight end Dawson Knox and one to wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders. The score was Sanders’ first touchdown in the postseason, coming in his 14th career playoff game with his fifth different team.

Allen’s fifth touchdown was a one-yard throw to reserve offensive lineman Tommy Doyle. All five of his touchdown throws came in play-action, the most by any player in a regular-season or playoff game since 2006 when ESPN began tracking play-action. He has gone four straight games without being sacked.

Running back Devin Singletary ran for two touchdowns behind an offensive line that dominated the line of scrimmage throughout the game.

The defense limited rookie quarterback Mac Jones throughout the game, including forcing two interceptions.

The Bills will now head to the Divisional round of the playoffs for a second straight season with a perfect record in home playoff games under McDermott. With a Chiefs win on Sunday night, the Bills would head to Kansas City, the site of last year’s AFC Championship loss.

Buffalo is 0-3 in road playoff games since McDermott became head coach (0-3). With a Pittsburgh Steelers win, the Bills would host the Cincinnati Bengals next week.

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Derek Carr, Maxx Crosby want Rich Bisaccia back as Las Vegas Raiders’ head coach

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CINCINNATI — Raiders quarterback Derek Carr and Pro Bowl defensive end Maxx Crosby both heartily endorsed Rich Bisaccia retaining the head-coaching job permanently following Las Vegas’ season-ending 26-19 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals in the opening round of the playoffs on Saturday night.

Bisaccia was promoted from special teams coordinator to interim head coach following Jon Gruden’s resignation on Oct. 11.

“I think we can all think that he’s the right guy,” Carr said of Bisaccia. “He’s proven that people listen to him. Our team listens to him. And I love him so much, I’m thankful for him. All those things will be decisions that I don’t make; I don’t get to make. I just play quarterback … but with everything that went on, if you really look at what happened, all the pieces missing, everything that changed, yeah, he held it together.”

Carr referenced the Raiders losing starting guards Richie Incognito and Denzelle Good to injury in the preseason and opener, respectively. He also talked about receiver Henry Ruggs III being cut following his involvement in a high-speed car crash that left a woman dead. Carr also cited Pro Bowl tight end Darren Waller missing five games down the stretch; Pro Bowl running back Josh Jacobs being dinged up and unavailable at times; and losing versatile running back Kenyan Drake to a knee injury in Week 13.

“You go on and on and on and on, and that’s just offense,” said Carr, who had driven the Raiders to the Bengals’ 9-yard line before being intercepted at the 2-yard line on fourth-and-goal with 12 seconds to play Saturday night. “The fact that that staff kept everything together and kept us competitive and kept us finding ways to win football games, I think that’s what our organization is about, right? So, we’ll see what happens. We know what we want to have happen. But, again, we’re Raiders. We’re going to play football, but we just hope it, obviously, we hope it’s for somebody special.”

Carr also said he would stay out of direct conversations when it came to his future with the team. He has one year remaining on the five-year, $125 million extension he signed in 2017.

He said his agent and the Raiders have a good relationship.

“Lord knows there’s been a lot of things to communicate about, right?” Carr said. “When the time comes, I never want a face-to-face. I’m going to play quarterback, but my message will be talked about.

“I’m not going to go to dinner and say, ‘We have to do something.’ I’m not that guy. I’ll let my voice be heard, but in a different way.”

Crosby, who was just named second-team All-Pro, called Bisaccia a “great leader” for the Raiders.

“If it was up to me, I think everyone in the world knows what my decision would be,” said Crosby, who had a sack among his six tackles on Saturday. “I love Rich. You know, I’m biased, obviously, but he’s, he’s a great coach … he came in and got us to 10 wins. We came on the road, on a short week, and gave Cincinnati everything they could handle.

“One of the best people I know. One of the most honest dudes I know. And I’ll go to bat for him any day of the week. I love that dude to death. He knows that. I appreciate everything he’s brought to the table. I hope we keep doing it.”

Raiders owner Mark Davis has remained silent on the team’s head-coaching search, as well as on the futures of Carr and general manager Mike Mayock.

Bisaccia, meanwhile, laughed when asked if he thought about being elevated to the full-time job.

“I’m just thinking about those guys in that locker room that played the game with their heart and soul out there like that,” he said, “and had a chance to win at the end.”

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