Can Johnathan Abram, 'legalized butt-whipper,' save the Raiders?
There is no player in the NFL like the Raiders’ safety. The hard-hitting, unapologetic Abram is exactly what this stammering defense needs now and for years to come.
He never starts it. He swears.
You’ve gotta believe him.
OK, Johnathan Abram admits he curses — “a lot” — but the gnarly Las Vegas Raiders safety promises he never actually starts the beef. Fresh off shellacking the Denver Broncos this season, he pleads his case. During pregame, so his story goes, Abram ever so innocently wandered toward midfield to watch Denver’s defensive backs do some drills. He claims he wasn’t on their side of the field and that he didn’t utter one word.
“Shit,” Abram says, “if they do some good drills, I might tell my coach so we do it!”
Either way, the Broncos were not pleased. This was too close, too creepy. Cornerback Davontae Harris (referred to as “27” by Abram, never by name) and Duke Dawson Jr. turned around and one of them shouted, “What the hell you looking at?” Undeterred, Abram shouted right back, “What the hell you looking at!?” Abram was not about to cower and limp away with his tail between his legs because, in his mind, those Broncos drew first blood. “We’re talking to your soft ass!” he says one Bronco shouted back.
So, Abram inched juuuust a little closer.
“So they can hear me,” he says. “Because I don’t feel like yelling.”
He walked over to those DBs and shouted, “Who the hell are you talking to? They didn’t tell you all, ‘Don’t ever poke a sleeping bear?’” The game began. And, with one hit, Abram ended this kerfuffle on his terms.
“I knocked the shit out of 27.”
He most certainly did. On the punt return team, Abram spotted Harris in the gunner position and licked his chops. This was his chance. It didn’t matter that his returner, Hunter Renfrow, had already fielded the punt and was on his way to the end zone. Abram saw red. He sprinted diagonally at full speed and lit Harris up. The hit would’ve been considered 100 percent clean in another era but, by rule today, was deemed too vicious. He was flagged. The touchdown was nullified.
This all still felt pretty, pretty damn good. After sending him airborne, Abram stared down at 27 and had the last word.
“I told him,” Abram says, “‘Close your g--damn mouth.’”
The Raiders blew the Broncos out that day, 37-12, but the scoreboard didn’t do their performance justice. They left these visitors battered, bloodied, broken. Not only did they pick off Drew Lock four times, they hit him seven times. They injured him. “We cracked his ribs,” Abram says with a hue of pride. “Two his ribs.” In reality, tests showed Lock suffered severe strain and bruising to his ribs but you get the point. Abram’s Raiders enjoy beating the hell out of opposing quarterbacks because these Raiders have shown signs of being a lot like the old Raiders.
Abram’s violence can be contagious.
He points to Arden Key and Nick Morrow. Both had huge hits in that Denver win.
He points to Nick Kwiatkoski. When this Raiders linebacker smacked the Chiefs’ Mecole Hardman, Abram says he heard the contact 30 yards away. (“Oh my God. He’s got some way harder hits this year than me! It was.. it was like… FIYAH! And I was like, ‘Shit, I’ve gotta hit somebody like that!’”)
He points to the need to destroy a receiver carrying out the fake on a jet sweep. (“The next time he gets that jet sweep? When they actually hand it off? The first thing he’s going to do is turn his eyes to see where we’re at.”) Which is why he wants his teammates drilling the QB every time the QB hands the ball off on an option play. Hit Lamar Jackson every time and he’ll get scared. (“He won’t run it no more! Run that shit at me!”)
His voice speeds up. He sounds like a guy who wants to tee off on a quarterback this second because Abram believes he has “10 bad boys” out there with him at all times.
Of course, the season also took a sharp nosedive south after the Denver win.
The Raiders lost three of four with their only win the result of an asinine all-out blitz by the winless Jets. They’ve allowed 399 yards per game, 37.5 points per game and their defensive coordinator was fired. All savagery Abram’s crew built up for two months seemed to just… vanish. Now, the Raiders need to win on Thursday Night Football against the Los Angeles Chargers to keep pace in the AFC. And Abram? His status is up in the air with a concussion and a knee injury. Not exactly a shocker. This is how he plays week in and week out — like his life’s on the line every play.
This defense needs as much Abram as it can get the rest of this season and beyond.
As long as Abram’s in silver and black, these Raiders will ride or die with his beautiful belligerence. Take it from the best players to ever wear those colors, the ones who made receivers tremble in fear. George Atkinson talks to Abram every day and calls him a future superstar. Lester Hayes watches every play of every game, constantly rewinding Abram’s hits to relive them again in slow motion. Abram reminds him of the late, great Jack Tatum. The chilling “Assassin” who symbolized the brutality of the sport.
“I love No. 24. Love him,” Hayes says. “He is testosterone-charged. You talk about testosterone? He is a testosterone-filled, legalized butt-whipper! I love him.
“No. 24 loves the boom. The boom is very, very important.”
There’s still time to lower that boom. Maybe Abram can save the Raiders’ season. He certainly believes his game can flourish in today’s game long term. When he puts that rap into his ears before kickoff, when he’s buzzing from Point A to Point B, when he’s talking smack and backing it up, Johnathan Abram enters a whole different dimension of violence and sends an electromagnetic shock through the entire defense.
All it takes is one hit to bring the Raiders back.
Says Abram, “If you commit yourself to something, anything is possible.”
Johnathan Abram has every reason to tap the brakes. To play with a touch of finesse.
Maybe you remember his debut in 2019. That night, Abram blasted his six-foot, 205-pound frame into harm’s way all game and put every player employed by the NFL on notice. First, he beelined toward receiver DaeSean Hamilton and threw his right shoulder into the receiver at the perfect moment, right when the ball arrived, yet fell hard and paid the price. Upon hitting the turf, Abram tore his entire rotator cuff — three ligaments. One in front of his shoulder, one under his armpit, one in his back. He tore the capsule, too, which holds the bone in place.
Abram came out for one play, the shoulder popped back in and he continued to play.
Later that game, Abram lowered his head into running back Royce Freeman along the sideline. The hit seemed legal in slow-motion but happened so violently, so rapidly and seemed so foreign to the modern game in real time that the ref had no choice but to throw a flag. On impact, Abram’s legs also whipped into the head of teammate Gareon Conley who needed to be taken away on a stretcher. Ironically enough, Conley would be A-OK and Abram was the one who’d miss his entire season with that wrecked shoulder.
So, that’s where this conversation begins. With common sense. Wouldn’t everyone feel no choice but to dilute their playing style after such an injury? Abram starts by saying that, yes, he did learn plenty while sitting out as a rookie. What shots to take. How to take them. And how, he explains, to strike opponents with his chest instead of his shoulder because flying through the air for kill shots 24/7 also means crashing into the ground and, Abram learned, “the ground is undefeated.”
Abram sees a fine line.
Yet make no mistake about it: He will never soften his game. When he hears that word, he cringes.
“No, no, no,” Abram says. “We’re still going to run and hit people.”
No injury, no flag, no fine will ever change his mentality because Abram knows this mentality is what fueled the best defenses of all-time, like the most recent hellions: Seattle’s Legion of Boom. Those DBs, he explains, out-ran you, out-hit you, terrified you. Receivers were afraid to do anything in the middle of the field against the Seahawks from 2012-16. And through college, Abram grew to realize that he, too, could make a living with such intimidation. His Mississippi State defense ranked No. 1 nationally in 2018.
Now, he hopes to build an LOB-like legacy in Vegas.
“We’re bringing back the old style of how the game is meant to be played,” says Abram, riding high when the getting was good. “Eleven guys flying to the football.”
When these Raiders were taking names and kicking ass, the effect was devastating.
Abram saw it in his opponents’ eyes.
“As the game progresses,” he says, “you see those guys fade away. They don’t really want to be here anymore. And for the defense, that’s when the game becomes super fun. The turnovers start to come in bunches. Because at that point, the other guy doesn’t want to be here anymore. He’s tired of getting hit the whole game. He’s tired of us flying around, getting to the ball. Every time he turns around, there’s four or five Raiders standing behind him. That becomes intimidating. You the look like, ‘Where’s my teammate!?’”
He channels his inner-Marshawn Lynch in saying no human being wants to get hit over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again.
Says Abram: “You have to run through their face! They don’t want that! Not for four quarters.”
He needs that adrenaline rush in life so, every offseason, Abram is a thrill-seeker. He’ll ride ATVs, dirt bikes, go hunting and, when Abram first moved to Nevada, he revved up a dune buggy one day and shot a mini gun out of a helicopter another. But in-season? Abram scratches that itch every Sunday. He flips that proverbial switch. He’s calmer than calm off the field. His best friend, former Louisville receiver Jaylen Smith, even reveals Abram’s newest passion here: drawing. Abram will soon launch an Instagram account for all of his artwork. Abram talked to a tattoo artist who recommended drawing different animals to start — his latest drawing is a buck.
On the field? Abram turns it on. His mano-a-mano, I must break you abandon can be traced back to one day: Dec. 30, 2017.
That’s when Abram played his best friend of 14 years, Smith, in the Gator Bowl. That’s the topic that deflates Abram’s buoyancy into barely-audible grief. Mississippi State won, 31-27, but Smith embarrassed him. Badly. Abram keeps details to a minimum, saying simply his friend stiff-armed him, was the first receiver in forever to go for 100 yards on his defense and that Smith couldn’t wait to plaster that stiff-arm all over social media.
Smith is a pinch more willing to offer up the details. First, he’s a little perturbed to hear Abram failed to mention the first play of the game when he also roasted him on what should’ve been an 86-yard touchdown. Smith saw No. 38 across the line and couldn’t wait to burn him on this “Squirrel” corner-post route. Unfortunately, Lamar Jackson threw the ball to someone else even though Smith left Abram — playing “the worst leverage possible” — seven yards in the dust.
Then, yes, he caught a short pass and stiff-armed him into tomorrow.
“It’s one he’ll never forget,” Smith says. “He asked for it.”
Abram certainly did. During pregame, a posse of four or so Bulldogs taunted Smith with Abram serving as “the ringleader.” Abram, he says, was testing his “manhood.” And he knew this was nothing but a childish act. Abram was pretending to be big and bad in front of his teammates when he shouted, “You ain’t getting nothing today!” When Smith’s coach begged him to turn around, to leave it alone, Abram ‘n co. let Smith have it: “Yeah! Do what your coach says!”
Smith then finished with 107 yards and a touchdown.
“It was such an embarrassing moment for him because of how he acted before the game,” Smith says. “He knew I was extremely petty so as soon as I got the picture, I put it on Instagram and tagged him in it. He was like, ‘Man, you’re never going to let me live this down.’ And I never do! I always tell him, ‘You had the opportunity to do everything you said you’re about. Everything you did to everybody else, you had ample opportunity to do to me. We went four full quarters and you didn’t hit me once. And the one time you had a legitimate chance? I embarrassed you.’”
That day forward, Abram vowed — to himself — to always be the aggressor.
When he’s between those lines, it’s on.
“Now,” Abram says, “every receiver I play, it’s personal. I have to treat them all like him. … I don’t ever want any receiver to have ‘up one’ on me.”
Adds Smith: “He lives by that and he always tells me that. It was a switch that just happened. Like, ‘I can’t go out like that anymore.’ At this stage in his life, he’s a guy in the league that a lot of people don’t mess with. They know that he’s no-nonsense. He plays 110 percent. He doesn’t want to give them the satisfaction of saying, ‘Oh! I got Johnathan Abram!’ Everyone should have that mentality of, ‘If it’s not me, it’s nobody. It’s either me or me. You is not an option.’ People are upset because he’s playing ‘too hard.’ There’s no such thing as playing ‘too hard.’ Maybe you’re not playing hard enough. Maybe you should reciprocate half of my energy.”
So, what’s a shattered shoulder? An injured knee? A concussion? Whenever Abram is back, he’ll resume all aggression and the Raiders’ defense will instill that fear once more.
Abram is not slowing down now. Abram must destroy you.
“I have to win,” he says. “Whoever they put in front of me, I have to whup his ass.”
Striking the balance
Here is what you won’t hear: An ultra-violent player whine about a league going soft.
You half-expect it, of course. Every decision made by the owners seems hellbent on making life miserable for a guy like Abram. More points mean more money. The league is all in on gambling and fantasy football — no way does this commish covet the 13-7 bloodbath. And no way does he want any players escorted out on stretchers, either. So, rule after rule, playing safety in the NFL increasingly becomes mission impossible.
Yet right when you expect this convo to turn into the Roast of Roger Goodell, Abram does not a lament a thing. The NFL wants Mahomes! and Lamar! and Rodgers! on that marquee. Whatever. Abram embraces the opportunity to take a sledgehammer to this precious, QB-driven story the NFL wants to tell.
“Guys wanna bitch about it,” Abram says, “when in reality we can’t control this, so why even bitch and gripe about it? Let’s just go do what we can do. Honestly, what are you going to change by complaining!? The league is going to tell you it’s the league. Suck it up or quit. It’s an offensive game.”
He flips the script. The rules are forcing most defensive backs to completely alter their games? Fine. He won’t change. He’ll be different. There are not 80,000 fans injecting energy into stadiums on Sundays due to the pandemic? No sweat. He will bring the electricity one collision at a time. He’s been flagged. He’s been fined. But, in 2020, Abram believes the officials have let guys play for the most part. Abram has a theory, too. He points to the infamous missed DPI in the NFC title game two years ago. The backlash from that missed call — one that robbed the New Orleans Saints of a Super Bowl appearance — was so strong, so loud, he thinks the league wants to do everything in its power for the officials to simply not be the story. Abram has a lot of family in the New Orleans-area, too. Cajuns, he assures, will fight you if you so much as say Tom Brady is better than Drew Brees.
Abram believes there was so much backlash behind the scenes after that play that, in general, the NFL wants its officials out of the headlines.
“Fan is short for fanatics,” Abram says. “People write death threats to those referees and threaten their families. It’s crazy. You have to realize how much controversy that brought to the league.”
Whatever the reason, Abram is optimistic he can strike a balance and play his way.
He’s inspired by those Raiders of old, too. Both Atkinson and Hayes assure Abram would’ve thrived in their cutthroat era.
“He’s a leader by all standards,” Atkinson says. “It’s only a matter of time before he becomes a superstar at the position.”
Atkinson loves Abram’s utter “lack of fear” and offers one scary thought: The more Abram sharpens his tackling angles, the harder those hits will become. He’s not concerned about this playing style, either, because he believes it’s a lot easier to harness someone’s violence than it is to inject a player with it. And such a human missile has an effect on everyone. Hayes calls Abram’s game “psychological stimuli” for everyone else on the entire team. The way he runs and hits and destroys, he says with emphatic enunciation, “gives you a fascinating feeling through your body.”
Suddenly, you want to crush the opposition, too.
Abram is a throwback to an era in which, he says, playing defense was “allowed.”
“I trust No. 24 to be a legalized butt-whipper the same song Sunday after Sunday after Sunday,” Hayes says. “That’s his song — ‘I will legally whip your ass!’ As far as confidence goes, there are men with different levels of testosterone. Johnathan’s testosterone speaks and his flesh backs it up. That is testosterone speaking.”
It’s fun to talk about smashing other peoples’ faces. It’s true, Abram probably could play in the 70’s with those old-time Raiders.
Abram wants these Raiders to look like those Raiders. But is that really possible?
The NFL chews up and spits out guys like this all the time — Abram surely witnessed one teammate’s final farewell to the league. Linebacker Vontaze Burfict said many of the same things Abram is here when we talked during his 2016 suspension and Burfict has also lost more than $5.3 million due to fines and suspensions. Even Atkinson admits Abram is “overzealous” at times and must play with more patience. Atkinson also sees a young defense that now looks tired, that isn’t accustomed to the grind of playing 16 games.
Teams are essentially poking the bear and that bear is not retaliating.
Oh, Abram rips Pro Football Focus and any writers “who never played football” saying his game wouldn’t fit in today’s NFL. (“That’s another reason I play the way I play — because of them.”) And yet, with 28 seconds left, there’s an overzealous Abram vacating his zone against Kansas City, allowing Travis Kelce to catch the game-winning touchdown. KC targeted him as a liability in coverage. And in Indianapolis, last week, Abram resembled that college kid getting stiff-armed by his best friend. That blowout loss was not pretty. Concussion ‘n all.
Abram has 55 solo tackles and two picks in 11 games. PFF has him down for 18 receptions allowed, 44th among all safeties.
Whenever Abram returns, do not expect him to play with one grain of passiveness.
This is how he is wired. This attack mentality, truly, goes back even further than his friend’s stiff-arm. Everything is rooted in his mother’s words and actions. Abram will never forget how Mom worked her way from the cash register at Wendy’s to general manager. She flipped burgers to keep food on their own table.
Says Abram: “My Mom always taught me, ‘If you’re going to do something, don’t just half-do it. Be all in.’ You never know the results you can get from being all in on something. That’s how some of the greats become great. They take one thing, each day and focus on that and attack it. Then they find something the next day to work on and they get better every day — 1 percent better. And then you have to have consistency in your life.”
When he made it to the pros, Abram bought Mom a house. Had to.
Now, Abram has a daughter of his own to support so he will keep playing 100 miles an hour. He even begs all quarterbacks out there to test him. Another reason he hits the way he hits is that he gets so aggravated when quarterbacks ignore him all game, so bring it on guys.
“Like, ‘Please throw the ball over here at me!’” Abram implores. “Every attempt they drop back to throw the ball, I want them to target me. … Every attempt. Every play.”
There’s no need to be scared of anyone because he’s always spoiling for a fight on gameday. He listens to his favorite rapper, Young Boy, and says the music speaks to his soul. Abram listens to this music so much that running back Devontae Booker now calls him “JA Young Boy.”
The haunting bars always take Abram to a dark place.
“He makes you wanna go out there,” he says, “and just… just… annihilate somebody.”
The Raiders need that. ASAP.
Time is running out. Right now, the Raiders have a 15 percent chance of making the playoffs. They need to take care of business against the Chargers. Then again in Week 16 against the Dolphins. Then once more in Week 17. But if playoff hopes are still in the air in that finale, oh my, what a riot that’ll be.
Abram will get to see all of his friends in Denver, minus one. That “27” has been waived but, surely, the other Broncos will be ready for Round 2.
Surely, Abram will not back down.
The beauty of Abram’s brash style is that he owns it. He knows this is how you permanently change the culture of a team, one that’s been mostly muddled in mediocrity since the days of Hayes and Atkinson and Tatum in the 70s. And prior to his arrival — when Jon Gruden first signed his $100M contract — this appeared to be a franchise teetering on the brink. Trust was running on “E.” Players weren’t talking about lighting up the opposition, no, they were just hoping they weren’t cut the next day.
A player like Abram can change everything. His unabashed attitude could be exactly what this franchise needs. An identity.
The switch will flip back on soon and Abram will be jawing at opponents again.
Says Abram: “You have to let them know, ‘Hey, I’m whupping your ass over here! And there ain’t shit you can do about it!’”
No doubt, there’s truth to Abram’s theory on other players starting beefs, truth to Abram’s hilariously blunt statement, “I think other teams just hate me.” He’s a critically acclaimed trash talker and word gets around. Opposing coaches absolutely are telling their players to goad Abram into losing his cool. His reputation is cemented.
The first Kansas City game, it was a backup tight end Abram never heard of. Hell, he can’t even remember this forgettable player’s number. All Abram recalls is some dude beelining at him. (“To try to earhole me! He hit me and was like ‘You’re a soft ass.’ I was like, ‘Bro, I don’t even know you!’”) And that first Denver game, Abram got into it with someone else, too: wide receiver Tim Patrick. You can see the blow-by-blow here. Abram picked up an incomplete pass, Patrick batted it away, Abram shoved him, Patrick punched him in the head and a scuffle broke out. Patrick was ejected but Abram was later fined $15,000 for instigating it all. He’s not sure why. (“I wasn’t bothering him! All I did was pick up the incomplete ball and he proceeded to knock it out of my hand. Why would you do that?”)
Two weeks later, Abram was reportedly fined $80,000 for hits that weren’t even flagged against Atlanta.
If players are trying to get under his skin, Abram promises that ploy will fail.
“Because if they piss me off,” Abram says, “I’m like, ‘OK, I’m just going to knock the shit out of you.”
The Raiders need to somehow rediscover this feeling of invincibility. Abram looks at this roster and sees “all the pieces” needed to go the distance.
“When all 11 guys are on the same page?” he says. “And when we are all doing it? And the guys are coming off the bench are on the same thing? Fresh legs just running and getting to the ball? That’s when you see the results from the Denver game. Everybody’s out there. We’re all having fun. We’re feeding off each other. The score doesn’t really matter to us at this point. We’re going out because we have the chance to play defense and we’re just having fun together.”
And Abram is the smiling, sneering, blonde-haired tip of the spear to it all.
There’s still meat on this bone in 2020.
Smith believes. Smith points to Abram blasting between two blockers to make a tackle for loss. That’s heart, he says. That’s a stunt other safeties don’t even consider attempting. He expects his friend to sacrifice his body like never before these final few games. That’s his nature. That’s Mom in him.
Atkinson believes. The Raiders’ defense was playing lights out before and, he says, you can recapture that feeling.
Hayes believes, too. He points to the front seven needing to stop the run for the scoreboard to stop lighting up “like it’s January 1st on Times Square!”
Sitting out Thursday night would be painful for Abram. Such concussion protocols didn’t exist back in the 70s but thank God they do today. This league now protects players like Abram against themselves. Whenever he’s back, expect Abram to exhaust every last drip of energy he has. His bones will creak. His muscles will ache. He might even need a surgery or two in the offseason.
He won’t give a damn.
No, before that Week 17 rematch with the Broncos, Abram will pull up that Young Boy on his phone and toggle between “Set it off” and “Dead Trolls” and “Rebels Kick It” and “Murder Business” before taking the field for warm-ups. He’ll dance to whatever music’s blaring on the speakers. He’ll yell at teammates to get them jacked up. He’ll most likely wander on over to where those Broncos DBs are doing drills.
Words will be exchanged.
The game will begin.
And, yet again, Abram will annihilate someone.
Thank you for restoring long form sports writing that brings out the best of athletes and competition.