It’s not the Super Bowl; there is no question that the nearly 90 Pro Bowl participants would much rather be there.
It’s an honor.
"It's always a pleasure to come to the Pro Bowl, to get invited with some of the best players in the world,” explained Johnson last week. “It's great to be around all the great other inside backers that I see, like Bobby Wagner or NaVorro Bowman, Sean Lee, those guys."
Johnson was drafted to the Chiefs in the first round of the 2005 NFL Draft and didn’t make it to his first Pro Bowl until his seventh year in the league (2011). Since then, he’s been to three more, only missing in 2014 when he suffered a season-ending injury in Week 1.
When he sees younger players make it so early in their careers, Johnson said he encourages them to always consider it an honor and to take advantage.
Johnson’s Chiefs teammate and fellow linebacker Tamba Hali said part of the reason Johnson regards this type of showcase game so highly is because of his desire to be known as one of the best defensive players in the NFL.
“Derrick's going to come out and play hard,” Hali said. “He takes these types of games seriously because he always wanted to be noticed as one of the better ones in this league and sometimes he doesn't get that recognition.”
Hali was drafted by the Chiefs in the first round of the 2006 NFL Draft, just a year after Johnson. What Hali said he likes most about Pro Bowl week is the opportunity to spend time with players he normally doesn’t get to interact with.
"It feels good being around these guys, getting to know them a little bit, talking,” Hali said. “You get around them and these guys are fond of your game and you look up to them as well, especially a guy like Julius Peppers, just picking his brain and learning tricks here that he talked about throughout the time we've been here."
It speaks to Hali’s respect of the game that even after his 10th year in the league, he refuses to stop learning. Defensive coordinator Bob Sutton, at age 65 with more than 40 years of football experience, mirrors his outside linebacker in that way.
“To get a chance to meet some of the other guys from other teams and players, that to me has been the most enjoyable part of the whole trip,” Sutton said, “just talking to them about how they prepare, what they do, how they practice, all those things that you just wonder. You see these guys on film so many times, of course, as you're getting ready for other teams and to get to know them, I think has really been enjoyable for me.”
As a result of the Pro Bowl draft format, Hali wound up on Team Rice, coached by Sutton, Andy Reid and the rest of the Chiefs staff.
Though Team Irvin would eventually win Sunday’s game, 49-27, before the game, Johnson explained that he’d rather have been with his teammates and coaching staff.
"I always want to be on the Chiefs team. That's all I know,” he said. “I'm a Chief. At the same time, it will be a great time to showcase my talents against [them], but trust me, I definitely want Andy to be on my team."
That closeness and the desire to be with each other is a trait the 2015 version of the Chiefs team had all season, and although they didn’t reach their ultimate goal, there still remains a belief among the Pro Bowlers that this team is headed in the right direction.
“Obviously, we'd like to play in the Super Bowl, but what we did as a team, being able to go on that run and how our guys believed that we had a good team and we've never quit, with that mindset, hopefully the guys will understand that we're the team that they have to worry about,” Hali said. “We know we have the pieces and what John Dorsey does and coach (Andy) Reid does, the sky's the limit because those guys understand what we need at the Chiefs, and since we've been here, we've only gotten better."
It wasn’t the Super Bowl, but five invitees to a game featuring the league’s best is undeniably a good sign.
Say what you want about the actual Pro Bowl game, but Hali and Johnson rightly consider their invitation an honor, all the while hoping that next year, they’ll be getting ready for something greater—an opportunity to win the Lombardi Trophy as Kansas City Chiefs.