Birthday boy Ezra Johnson was actually very similar in size to Willie Davis at 6’4” and weighing from 240-250 pounds, but Ezra came along a decade after Davis retired and was very small for his time. He was also very fast, running a 4.5 40. Al Davis was very interested in drafting Johnson out of tiny Morris Brown in 1977 and converting him to linebacker in Oakland, but Green Bay selected Ezra with their second first round pick that year. Ironically, the Packers had received that pick from the Raiders in partial exchange for Oakland signing Packer free agent Ted Hendricks two years before. Coach Bart Starr did not rule out converting Johnson to outside linebacker upon drafting him, but never did. Similar to the 49ers’ Tommy Hart, another small, fast defensive end from Morris Brown a decade earlier, Johnson was very raw and needed a lot of polishing as a rookie.
At right defensive end, Johnson used his speed and moves to lead the Packers in sacks seven of his 11 years in Green Bay. He made the Pro Bowl in 1978 and was said to have 20.5 sacks that year. The research of Webster and Turney pegs the actual total at 17.5 that year and 81.5 for his career, second only to Davis in Packer annals. Johnson’s sack total dipped in 1979 when he missed seven games with an ankle injury and rebounded some in 1980, although that season was marred by the Hot Dog Incident. During a preseason game, Johnson was spied on the sidelines eating a hot dog during the game. Defensive line coach Fred Van Appen was so upset that Bart Starr did not suspend Ezra for his frankfurter transgression that he resigned.
In 1981, the Packers converted their defense to a 3-4, and Ezra lost his starting job to a stouter and slower Casey Merrill. Johnson regained his starting job in the strike season of 1982 and revived his pass rushing talents with 5.5 in just nine games. In 1983, he recorded 14.5 sacks in the second-best season of his career. Back problems caused him to go in and out of the lineup in 1984 and 1985, and by 1986, Ezra was a pass rush specialist only. Released by Green Bay in 1988, he finished his career with two years in Indianapolis and two in Houston. Johnson was a productive player throughout his long career in Green Bay, but was probably better suited to the 4-3 defense.
(adapted from Green Bay Gold.)
A selection of custom cards for Ezra Johnson.