Still a Mystery: Why Won't Kansas City Chiefs Start Derrick Johnson?

James Adkins@KCChiefsBlitzCorrespondent IINovember 21, 2009

KANSAS CITY, MO - SEPTEMBER 28:  Derrick Johnson #56 of the Kansas City Chiefs strips the ball from Brandon Marshall #15 of the Denver Broncos causing a fumble during the first half of the game on September 28, 2008 at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Chiefs head coach Todd Haley must have had a bad experience as a child at the hands of someone with a last name of Johnson.

In addition to the most recent episode with former Chiefs' running back Larry Johnson, Haley continues to harbor some sort of ill-will towards Kansas City linebacker Derrick Johnson. So much so, that he can’t seem to find a situation or a position on his defense that justifies starting the former first-round selection out of Texas.

Johnson, unlike his former running back teammate of the same surname, hasn't been critical of his head coach. He hasn't gotten in trouble with the law. He's not making a habit of antagonizing Chiefs' fans when he's out in public. And he hasn't gotten into trouble with the league for failing a drug test.

Stated simply, Derrick Johnson has been a class act in his time in Kansas City, and one of the Chiefs most productive players. So why isn’t Haley giving Johnson consistent playing time on a team that is 2-7?

Haley has pointed to issues with Johnson’s work ethic since early in training camp. He also pointed to similar issues with wide receiver Dwayne Bowe. And like Bowe, Johnson was demoted during the preseason.

The difference between Bowe and Johnson however, is that until this week and the suspension of Bowe by the league, Bowe has started all but one of the games in which he’s played this season. Johnson has started only once, and has been relegated to special teams’ duty for the most part this season.

Like Bowe is on offense, Johnson is arguably the most talented player on the Kansas City defense.

When Haley announced shortly after being hired that he was bringing in Clancy Pendergast to be the defensive coordinator, it seemed that his creative blitz schemes would be a perfect fit for Johnson’s athleticism. But instead of Johnson being allowed to flourish in the new system, Haley has only allowed him to play sparingly on defense.

When Johnson has played, he has shown that he can produce in this defense. In his only start of the season at Washington, he had four tackles. In spot time in other games this season, he has produced one sack, defended two passes, forced a fumble, and returned an interception 70 yards to setup a touchdown in week one against Baltimore.

And while Johnson is listed with the Chiefs as an inside linebacker, there is no doubt that he can play outside as well. In fact, if you were to compare him to the Chiefs’ outside linebackers, who include converted end Tamba Hali and veteran Mike Vrabel, Johnson has more speed and is more capable in pass coverage.

If you compare Vrabel’s full season stats of a year ago, when he played with the Patriots, to Johnson’s, Johnson was more productive.

2008-2009 Stats

Mike Vrabel (NE): 62 tackles, 4 sacks, 1 interception, 1 forced fumble, and 5 passes defended

Derrick Johnson (KC): 85 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 1 interception, 4 forced fumbles, and 7 passes defended


Now, after nine games of finding excuses as to why Johnson isn’t playing, and with the 34-year-old Vrabel out with a knee injury, it would seem the ideal time to get Johnson a start, right? Apparently not.

With Vrabel out for Sunday’s game against the defending champion Pittsburgh Steelers, Haley has publicly announced that second year linebacker Andy Studebaker will start in Vrabel’s place.

That’s right, a guy who played at Division III Wheaton, was drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles in the sixth-round of the 2008 draft, picked up off the Eagles’ practice squad by the Chiefs, and has 12 career tackles will start for the Chiefs.

Apparently, Haley is of the opinion that Studebaker, more than a former first-round draft choice who was second on the team in tackles last season, is more capable of blitzing Ben Roethlisberger and covering tight end Heath Miller.

Keep in mind, Miller is the Steelers' second leading receiver and is tied with wide receiver Hines Ward with four receiving touchdowns. He has been Roethlisberger’s safety blanket in the passing game.

With the Chiefs secondary, particularly the safeties, having difficulties in pass coverage all season long, it would only make sense to play the athletic Johnson in Vrabel’s spot. Instead, Haley has chosen to start a guy with no career starts to his credit to line up Sunday against the defending champions.

Here’s to hoping that Haley wakes up sometime soon, and finally forgives whatever childhood menace named Johnson tormented him in his youth.

Haley’s honeymoon first season as a head coach is almost over, and unless his play calling and personnel decisions start yielding better results in the win column, he’s going to run out of reasons as to why he isn’t playing his defense’s best player.