Safety Rashad Johnson returns one of his two interceptions against the Falcons last weekend.
Rashad Johnson is about more than his fingers.
Or lack of them. Or more specifically, lack of a fingertip.
The veteran safety was all over the sports news for a week while the Cardinals were in Sarasota between road games and "at first it was kind of cool talking about the story." Johnson had gotten hurt in New Orleans, and was trying quickly to return despite his messed-up digit.
But then it got harder. Every time Johnson turned around, wherever he went, people wanted to talk about the finger. It wasn't so much recounting the events that bother Johnson. It was the reminder he wasn't back playing.
"It was a struggle because I didn't think it was going to take so long," Johnson said.
All Johnson wanted was to be on the field and part of the team. He was happy to have his first two-interception game of his
career Sunday against Atlanta, but cherishes his lower-profile plays as much. He ceded playing time to rookie safety Tyrann Mathieu but insists he is unaffected, because that's the role he has.
Coach Bruce Arians talked often when Johnson was sidelined of the leadership the Cards were missing because of the injury. That's Johnson's main aim.
"As a leader, sometimes you have to be able to accept the duty that is given to you," Johnson said. "No job on the field is smaller than another. If it is personally protecting on the punt, getting the last kickoff of the game against the Falcons, that's just as big of a play as the interceptions."
Johnson's help with Mathieu is another example. Johnson is healthy now, but it was Mathieu playing free safety in the Cards' base defense against Atlanta, not Johnson. Mathieu played all but one of the 83 defensive snaps against the Falcons. Johnson, used in the nickel package, played 52.
Mathieu said he was a little surprised at his increased time, but credits Johnson in a lot of ways for allowing Mathieu to grow quickly as an NFL safety.
"He's been a model pro," Mathieu said. "It's a blessing to have a guy with his intelligence, his smarts, his understanding of the game, playing with him, being next to him, and him kind of mentoring me and showing me different things. He's really helped me become a professional on and off the field
"For me to come in and get the bulk of the playing time in base, I know it's hard for him. But he is still helping me, still encouraging me."
If it is bothering Johnson, he isn't letting on. Playing 85 plays or just five, it is important for Johnson to let everyone know his effort won't be affected.
"There are plenty of snaps," Arians said. "The one thing about team, when you accept the role and flourish in the role, that's a
leader. That's what (Rashad) did."
Arians didn't commit to Mathieu's ascension on the depth chart yet. But it's clear Mathieu will continue to play a lot, and when the Cardinals go away from sub-packages, the most likely victim for playing time is Johnson.
Yet nothing will change with Johnson's approach. Once, Johnson was the vocal leader on special teams, with former teammate Adrian Wilson in place to take charge of the defensive backs. Now that Wilson is gone, Johnson has tried to be there in two areas for his team. Concerns for playing time don't fit into the equation.
It isn't as if Johnson has no ego. But it is grounded in self-awareness. For instance, both of his interceptions were simply getting under fly-ball passes with no one around him, not the most difficult of plays. Johnson knows they weren't spectacular – but they both aided the cause.
"Those are probably some of the easiest interceptions you can get because of the pressure the guys were getting up front and that's how the game goes," Johnson said. "There will be easy plays and the plays we need you to go make. When that comes, I want to be the guy who makes them."