In the 1980’s when there was more time to groom players before plugging them in the starting lineup, building your team through the draft, as we covered in our latest ‘On the Clock’ installment driven by Michelin, mean something different. Free agency only existed in the form of ‘Plan B’ and NFL head coaches didn’t have to treat rookie draft choices with much respect because they were expected to earn their playing time through their play in practice and on special teams, if they even made the roster. Such was the case with the New York Giants when Bill Parcells was the head coach as Bills defensive line coach Pepper Johnson remembers.
Johnson, who was a second-round pick of the Giants in 1986, was joining a veteran team that had lost in the Divisional round of the playoffs the year before to an unstoppable Bears team, which went on win Super Bowl XX.
So even though Johnson was a second-round pick, in the first meeting between the draft choices and Parcells it was evident the Giants head coach didn’t value his rookie all that much.
“When Parcells steps into the room and says, ‘We don’t need any of you.’ That wasn’t an awakening, but I thought it was cold,” Johnson told Buffalobills.com. “I was like, ‘Whoa. I thought why did you pick me if you don’t need me?’ So for him to take that approach really lit a fire under all of us because everybody felt like he was directly talking to them. You weren’t promised anything and you’re definitely not going to be given anything or handed anything. We had to go earn our right to play.”
Johnson after he made the roster was told playing time on defense was anything but assured.
“He said, ‘You’re not scheduled to play on defense, but the more you show me on the show team, the more you show me that you want to play football on special teams, never being late to meetings, the more you will get the opportunity to play.’ And it all held true,” said Johnson. “By the time that the season ended that year and we got to the Super Bowl I played more than the guy who was starting over me. I never started a ball game my rookie year, but I had more snaps than he did including the postseason.”
But Johnson said Parcells maintained that approach even into the late 80’s. It led 1989 fifth-round pick Dave Meggett to take a unique approach to his time with the Giants at training camp.
“Dave Meggett came to camp in a Dodge Gremlin and everything he owned was packed up in that Gremlin and it stayed in there,” said Johnson. “He never really unpacked. He would grab clothes as he needed them. He felt like I’m coming to the Giants and if these guys cut me I don’t want to be trying to find stuff and pack up stuff and go back to South Carolina. I’ll already have everything packed into this car. So we used to tease him, ‘Hey rookie give me a ride!’ But he never could because there was no room for anyone to sit in that car.”
Those days are in stark contrast to today’s draft choices, who are often afforded every opportunity to make the 53-man roster.
Tags: On the clock, Pepper Johnson
Posted in Inside the Bills