The Ravens lost on Sunday, but Josh Johnson didn't look lost at all.
Making his first NFL start since 2018, Johnson played like a someone who cherishes every opportunity. Before this weekend, nobody could have anticipated he would be the Ravens' starting quarterback in Week 16 against the Cincinnati Bengals.
He wasn't signed off the New York Jets' practice squad until Dec. 15. He found out he would start around 24 hours prior to kickoff, when Tyler Huntley was placed on the Reserve/COVID-19 list Saturday.
To say the odds were stacked against Johnson would be an understatement. He could have reacted like someone taking his first driving lesson on I-695, totally uncomfortable with the speed and the surroundings. Instead, Johnson finished 28-of-40 for 304 passing yards, two touchdowns and one interception.
Johnson coolly trotted onto the field, the Ravens opened in a hurry-up offense, and he coolly led them on a 75-yard drive capped by a 4-yard pass to Rashod Bateman for his first career touchdown.
Baltimore's early 7-3 lead didn't hold up for long, and the Bengals rolled to a 41-21 victory to take sole possession of first place in the AFC North. It was a disappointing loss for the short-handed Ravens, but Johnson showed he fits with this year's team. He was ready and resilient, and in a locker room that respects those qualities, Johnson was appreciated.
"Josh Johnson, you've got to tip your hat to him," said Pro Bowl tight end Mark Andrews, who had his third straight game with over 100 yards receiving. "I told him, 'You got to stand on what you did today, because that was pretty dang impressive.'
"He's a smart guy and he's been around the league for a long time. He did a great job stepping in, knowing the plays, hitting the open guys. He spread the ball around big-time. He's been here for 10 days. Playing quarterback, knowing our system for 10 days is not an easy thing."
Johnson has made a long career out of adapting quickly to new situations. Selected as a fifth-round pick by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2008, the 35-year-old Johnson has been with 13 NFL teams, an indication that organizations keep his phone number on speed dial. At this point, Johnson could open up a memorabilia store featuring the jerseys of all the teams he has played for.
To still be in the NFL, and to perform the way he did Sunday, showed Johnson's moxie. When he joined the team after Lamar Jackson sprained his ankle against the Cleveland Browns, Johnson knew he would likely only play in an emergency situation. When Huntley became unavailable on Saturday and Jackson was still not ready to play, the Ravens were in a 911 situation.
Johnson made it sound like his performance was no big deal, but it was to everyone else.
"I don't really focus on all the things I can't control," Johnson said. "That's why I'm able to be here and have this opportunity. For me, it's just really focus on how we can try to win and beat the Cincinnati Bengals. Unfortunately, we didn't do that today. So that's really we're I'm at. Just reflecting on the fact that we could've scored on those drives we didn't capitalize on. Being better in those situations."
Johnson wasn't perfect, he fumbled a snap on third down to end one early drive and he threw an interception in the second half. But watching Johnson open the game by completing three passes on his first three plays, then leading a 13-play, 90-yard drive in the second quarter, was like watching someone who has been playing in Baltimore's offense all season.
Looks can be deceiving, and Johnson made it seem easier than it was. But his experience obviously helped him navigate a situation that may have overwhelmed someone else.
"I knew the timing would be different, not knowing these guys' body languages, never playing in a game with them," Johnson said. "That just comes with time. I knew my feet wouldn't be perfect, so I wasn't really focused on the things you need time to have. For me it was just about, how can we get down the field? Let these great players do what they can do. We've got a hell of a cast here even amongst all the things going on. My job was to get those guys the ball and let them do what they do best."
Bateman will always remember that his first NFL touchdown came on a pass thrown by Johnson. When Johnson was drafted, Bateman was 9 years old, so there's a chance that their taste in music may not be similar. But on the field they clicked, and Bateman appreciated how Johnson handled himself.
"Shout out to Josh," said Bateman, who said he would give the touchdown ball to his mother. "I didn't really know him. I didn't know how long he played in the league, but it definitely showed today that [he's] a smart guy with the way he was reading the coverages and things like that and communicating with us. It was definitely impressive."
With two games left in the season, whether Johnson plays again will depend on the status of Jackson and Huntley. But the Ravens know they have another quarterback capable of moving the team at a moment's notice.
"He's a true Raven, just like everybody else here," wide receiver James Proche II said. "We all have that 'next man up' mentality. It's something we talked about. He just did his job. He's a true pro. It was amazing to see, it was truly inspiring."