CHARLOTTE – For six days, Charles Johnson was a defensive end without a team.
After nine seasons with the Panthers, he had been released. He fielded offers from several teams and visited the Giants and Buccaneers.
"It was awkward, weird, new. It was an experience," Johnson said. "The whole time everyone is like, 'Are you leaving? Are you not leaving?'
"I was just sitting back observing everybody and getting some entertainment out of it."
All along, Johnson knew there was a strong possibility he would return to Carolina, the team that drafted him in the third round in 2007.
"I talked with (general manager) Dave Gettleman and Coach Rivera about what I wanted to do, and I already had my mind made up," he said. "But I had to see the other situations for myself and go through the process."
In that process, he almost became a Giant. They made a compelling offer, and Johnson was impressed with what he called a "first-class organization."
But a conversation with New York general manager Jerry Reese flipped a switch for Johnson. He asked Reese if he would leave his post in New York if another club offered more money.
"He started as an intern there and now he's the GM for the Giants. He saw everything that happened – championships and all that. He said he wouldn't trade that for the world," Johnson said. "When he said that, I just thought to myself, 'I've been here the longest. And all I've asked for is an opportunity. So how can I turn away from my team and the family that's in Charlotte – how can I turn away?'
"That overweighed everything. I wanted to be happy, and I literally couldn't imagine signing with them. This place raised me."
So Johnson came back. He signed a team-friendly one-year contract with the Panthers, reportedly accepting half of what he could have earned elsewhere.
"It was hard, but at least they can't call me 'Big Money' anymore," Johnson said with a laugh. "They have to retire that. I'm 'Small Money' now."
Gettleman met Johnson with a big hug after he put pen to paper. The two of them shared a few hearty laughs.
"In these situations, you always want to be in a win-win – he wins and we win," Gettleman said. "It was important that we give Charles that opportunity. At the end of the day, when you sign a contract, you want to walk away happy. You just saw the smile on his face.
"What this deal signifies is Charles is a man of his word and in his heart he bleeds Carolina blue."
Johnson, who ranks second in team history with 63.5 sacks, knows what it means to be happy in the NFL. He signed an extremely lucrative contract in 2011, making him one of the highest paid defensive linemen in the league.
But Johnson hadn't experienced much team success at that point. In fact, Carolina was coming off a 2-14 season before he signed that deal in 2011.
"I've seen it at its worst. I've been here when it's at its worst," Johnson said.
And he battled to change it. The Panthers have won three consecutive NFC South titles and are coming off the second Super Bowl appearance in team history.
That's tough to walk away from when you have worked tirelessly to help lay that foundation for success.
"Once you put all that energy into it, I feel like I would have been wasting all that work had I gone somewhere else for some dollars," Johnson said. "I'd rather be happy doing what I'm doing around people that I know, and I'm comfortable with."
Yes, Johnson is comfortable in Carolina, but he feels he has a lot to prove.
He missed seven games with a hamstring injury last season and posted just one sack, the lowest output since his rookie year.
For Johnson and the Panthers, there is unfinished business to tend to in 2016.
"I didn't want to leave Carolina with that type of season that I had," Johnson said. "I want to prove myself, really. My ego is telling me that I have to prove myself to my teammates. I want to be at that high level that I've played at. I'm definitely coming out with some vengeance next year."
View photos of defensive end Charles Johnson during his ten seasons with the Panthers.