Johnson rips move by Ravens LB says 'rebuilding' team didn't cut him over money

July 11, 1996|By Mike Preston | Mike Preston,SUN STAFF

Ravens veteran linebacker Pepper Johnson said yesterday that he was cut Tuesday for political reasons and not because of the team's salary-cap problems.

Ravens vice president Ozzie Newsome said he waived Johnson, 31, and star wide receiver Andre Rison, 29, to help free up nearly $4 million to sign the team's seven draft picks and several free agents.

Johnson disagrees.

He said the team cut him because the Ravens are rebuilding and saw him as one of former coach Bill Belichick's "boys" and a possible problem in the locker room because he is outspoken.

Johnson said the Ravens coaching staff also diminished his role in the defense, but the final insult occurred when the team asked him to reduce his base salary from $850,000 to nearly $300,000.

"They didn't say restructure, they said reduce after they had redone my contract the year before," said Johnson. "They don't want to say rebuild, because that term disturbs a lot of the players, but that's what is going on. I think they may have considered me one of the salty players.

"When they told me to either reduce or get cut, I felt disrespected, like someone had slapped me in the face," said Johnson. "Last year, when the team started to fall apart, I helped bring them back together because I cared about winning. I was one of the few who didn't quit. There were at least 20 guys who should have taken a pay cut before me."

Johnson came to the Cleveland Browns for the start of the 1993 season. A year later, Belichick built his defense around Johnson, 6 feet 3, 265 pounds. He led the team in tackles the past two seasons, including 195 last season.

"Pepper played as well last season as he did during his Pro Bowl season in 1994," said Belichick, now the assistant head coach with the New England Patriots.

But Johnson said there were early signs that the Ravens no longer wanted him. He said he was demoted from the third-down depth chart without being told. The biggest indication came during mini-camp.

"After each practice, [new head coach] Ted Marchibroda would have a veteran player say something to the team," said Johnson. "Here I was the captain of the team the last two years, and they never asked me to say a word. A little strange, wouldn't you say?

"Then weeks after the camp, I hear stories where the coaching staff told people I weighed 300 pounds or I left camp early and wasn't a leader," said Johnson. "I've been around for 10 years. I knew what was going on."

Johnson said he never felt comfortable with new defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis during their brief time together.

"He was young and I was a veteran, so I thought we would learn from one another," said Johnson. "Instead, I didn't like some of the things he said about me in meetings or the way he said them. I saw the writing on the wall."

Lewis said he was unaware of any problems with Johnson either on or off the field. The Ravens will play a 4-3 defense this season, but the linebackers will play a more active and athletic role.

"I didn't know Pepper was unhappy," said Lewis. "All the time I've spent coaching Pepper, even at the Pro Bowl one year, was great. Sometimes, it's just hard for players to change.

"The bad thing about all of this was that the players [Rison and Johnson] were given options, and it didn't get done and it all dragged on."

Pub Date: 7/11/96

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