- Inducted: 1997
- Defensive End: 1977-87
- Height: 6-4; Weight: 250
- College: Morris Brown, 1973-76
- Pro Bowl Selection (played since 1950): 1978
Ezra Johnson finished his career as the Packers’ all-time sack leader, registered an unofficial team-record 20½ sacks in 1978 and was the team’s only defensive end to be named to a Pro Bowl over a 26-year period between Pro Football Hall of Famers Willie Davis and Reggie White. Johnson also had five defensive line coaches in his 11 years with the Packers and each one spoke about him in glowing terms.
“He’s capable of making as many big plays as anybody we have. There’s no limit to how good he can be,” Dave Hanner, his coach from 1977-79, said after Johnson’s rookie year.
“There aren’t many like him in the NFL. He has 4.6 speed in the 40 with 240-pound proportions,” said Fred von Appen, who coached Johnson during training camp in 1980 before resigning days before the season opener.
“I used to tell Ezra that he was too good to be coached by anybody but me. That’s one of Bear Bryant’s favorite lines,” Jim Champion, who replaced von Appen and served as interim coach in 1980, said 12 games into that season.
“I expect him to have a super, all-pro type year. I want to tell you something about the misconception of Ezra Johnson. I’ve never been around a player who hated to miss work more,” said Doc Urich, an NFL assistant for 10 years before serving as the Packers’ defensive line coach from 1981-83.
“I still consider Ezra one of the premier pass rushers in the NFL,” Dick Modzelewski, who coached him from 1984-87, said before Johnson’s final season with the Packers. “To me, he’s a leader-type. … I’ve never seen him quit in a game and I’ve never seen him quit in practice. That’s just the way he is.”
When the Packers drafted Johnson with the 28th selection and their second of two first-round picks in 1977, they gambled on an undersized defensive end listed at 6-foot-3½ and only 228 pounds and also on a player from a historically Black college with an enrollment of roughly 1,500. At the same time, the Packers landed a defensive end who had been timed in 4.5 seconds in the 40-yard dash and had registered 28 sacks in 10 games as a college senior.
As a rookie, Johnson saw spot duty behind Bob Barber at right defensive end in a 4-3 alignment and stood out on special teams with four blocked kicks. In his second season, Johnson took over as the starter and was credited, based on the coaches’ postseason film study, with 20½ sacks, second most in the NFL. Five of those sacks came in the season opener against Detroit.
At that point, Johnson figured to be in the vanguard of a suddenly growing and coveted specialist in the NFL: an outside speed pass rusher. Fred Dean, who was drafted two years earlier and roughly the same size as Johnson, was starting to make a splash in that role with the improving San Diego Chargers and also was about to assume an even more specialized role.
Early in the 1981 season, Bill Walsh traded for Dean, a six-year starter for the Chargers, and used him at what was now being referred to as a designated pass rusher en route to winning his first of three Super Bowls in San Francisco. Eventually, this new role also catapulted Dean into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Johnson was less fortunate. The Packers switched to a 3-4 defense in 1980, and he basically remained an every-down end who had to take on oversized offensive tackles in the running game. Johnson played eight years for the Packers in a 3-4 scheme with varying results and at a tremendous toll to his body.
Johnson retained his speed and quickness, as well as his unflagging effort, and continued to play at a high level when healthy. He started 16 games in 1983 and registered 14½ sacks. In the strike-shortened 1982 season, he started all nine games and had a team-high 5½ sacks. He also started 16 games in 1985 and was credited with 9½ sacks. On the other hand, Johnson tore a ligament in his ankle and missed five games in 1979, suffered a nagging hand injury his first year playing in a 3-4, twice underwent back surgery, and then missed six games in 1987 when he strained a knee ligament.
“We killed the golden goose,” former Packers director of player personnel Dick Corrick said years later. “All of a sudden, Ezra ends up playing head-on against a big-ass tackle instead of playing in space.”
Johnson’s reputation among fans also suffered from his notorious hot-dog incident that led to von Appen’s resignation. Johnson was caught eating a hot dog in the bench area near the end of a 38-0 loss to Denver in the final preseason game in 1980. He was fined $1,000 but coach Bart Starr later rescinded his decision.
In all, Johnson played in 148 games for the Packers and started 86. He is officially credited with 41½ sacks, his total from 1982-87. But counting his total in his first five seasons, before sacks were recognized as an official statistic, he finished with what would still be a club record 85. His first 43½ sacks were based on the coaches’ film study.
Johnson was waived by the Packers on Jan. 7, 1988. Following a change of heart, they tried to re-sign him in April, but Johnson accepted an offer from Indianapolis instead. He played two years for the Colts and had 8½ sacks in 1989 at the age of 34, playing as a designated pass rusher. He finished his career with the Houston Oilers, playing in 18 regular-season games over the 1990 and ’91 seasons, as well as three playoff games, one more than he had played in over 11 years with the Packers.
Born Oct. 2, 1955. Given name Ezra Ray Johnson.