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BillyCarpenter1 07-10-2003 06:22 PM

Bad News for Falcons
I got this off a Falcons Board.

Thursday July 10, 2003 9:32 PM

The general mood was decidely upbeat Thursday as the Falcons began a two-day mini-camp -- but with one glaring exception.

Ellis Johnson, a possible starting noseguard who played as well as any defensive lineman on the team late last season, was the only player absent from the last mandatory gathering before training camp opens two weeks from today. And nobody had an explanation.

Compounding the confusion, Johnson, who had a combined 54 tackles last season while ranking second in the NFL to Tampa Bay's Warren Sapp among interior defensive linemen with seven sacks, took his physical Wednesday and was said to be in a good mood Thursday morning before his disappearance.

''Nobody knows; it's a mystery to me,'' said Falcons coach Dan Reeves. ''He was here for the breakfast [Thursday] morning. We went into meetings and 30 minutes after we broke nobody knows were he is.''

Johnson, 29, is a licensed pilot and flew his own plane from his family's home near Indianapolis to Atlanta this week, as he did last month when he checked in during a month-long voluntary passing camp that he otherwise missed entirely.

His absence from passing camp was expected. After asking for -- and getting -- his release last August from the Colts, for whom he played the first seven years of his career, Johnson signed a three-year, $4.2 million contract with the Falcons shortly before the regular season.

But he and his wife decided to keep their home in Indiana, where their two children are comfortable in their respective schools, and where Johnson owns two farms. Last season, he spoke of his time away from his family being ''the most difficult thing I've ever done.''

Soon after the Falcons' loss on Jan. 11 at Philadelphia, Johnson expressed an interest in retiring. It appeared Reeves helped change his mind, partly by telling him it would be understood if Johnson remained with his family during the team's 14-week offseason workout program and June's passing camp.

When incumbent starting nose guard Ed Jasper underwent back surgery this spring, Johnson became a possible starter. Jasper, who practiced Thursday after missing passing camp while rehabilitating, worked as the No. 1 noseguard. Former practice squad member Ryan Watson and rookie free agent Floyd Black worked behind him.

''I thought he was here,'' Jasper said. ''If he's not, then he has a good reason. Ellis is one of those people who believes in doing the right thing, so there must be something wrong.''

Johnson's position coach, Bill Johnson, did not know anything more about him, nor did vice president of football operations Ron Hill.

''He certainly had some concerns after the season was over about playing another year,'' Reeves said. ''If something is bothering him, whatever it is, I wish he'd come in and talk to me.''

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