Johnson was benched a week ago
"It's a complete shock to me," Johnson told The Associated Press in an exclusive interview in his home. "I had a great 4½ years in Cleveland, but I never thought it would end this way. I'm still trying to figure this out."
The move, given Johnson's productivity and popularity during his tenure with the team, is somewhat dubious. The former Syracuse star has never been a favorite of the Butch Davis coaching staff, however, and was a frequent subject of trade rumors.
Browns fans are left wondering why Davis would release Johnson -- the team's most consistent receiver -- at this point in the season and after signing him to a four-year, $13.35 million contract extension with a $3.5 million signing bonus before last season.
"This is not a knee-jerk reaction," Davis said in a statement. "We have been trying for almost three seasons to help Kevin perform to the level of expectations we have had for him. I am disappointed our staff has not been able to get him to accept the expectations we have of how the wide receiver position should be played."
Johnson said Davis called him into his office on Tuesday to inform him that he was no longer in the team's future plans.
"I'm really disappointed in the way it ended, simply because of all that I've done for him (Davis)," Johnson told the AP. "I never questioned him and I never talked bad about him to anyone or about anything. It doesn't make sense."
Johnson was demoted last week because coaches felt he had not blocked well in the running game and Johnson reacted by publicly noting he has been the Browns' leading receiver in every season with the team. That likely did not play well with team officials.
Johnson, however, said he never questioned his benching. In fact, he was the one who told Andre' Davis that he would be starting, the Associated Press reported.
"I took it like a man," said Johnson, whose 315 receptions tied him for fourth on the club's career list. "I supported every guy who went in there.
"It was very disappointing not to be in there," Johnson said. "We went 3-for-11 on third downs -- that's where I make my living. All I've done is make plays for this team."
Then again, the demotion did not play well in the locker room, where veterans have questioned some of Davis's past moves, and the Tuesday release of Johnson probably will send shock waves through the roster.
Johnson was stunned to hear Davis' reasons behind releasing him.
"I guess I wasn't good enough," he told the AP. "This is crazy."
Johnson's relationship with Davis had been strained for some time. As early as 2001, Davis' first season in Cleveland, he tried to trade Johnson.
Johnson, 27, is subject to league waivers.
If he is claimed by another team, he must report, since the trade deadline has passed. But because he is a "vested" veteran, he has the right to declare himself an unrestricted free agent after the 2003 season. If he is unclaimed by Wednesday, which is anticipated, then Johnson becomes free to sign with any team.
Within hours of being released by the Browns, Johnson sat in his living room and fielded several calls from NFL head coaches interested in signing him.
Johnson's cell phone was also ringing nonstop from Cleveland players offering their support and wishing their popular ex-teammate well, the Associated Press reported.
His base salary for 2003 is $950,000, which means any team assuming his current deal will owe him a prorated portion based on remaining games, or about $391,000. Johnson was under contract through 2006, with scheduled base salaries of $1.45 million (2004), $1.4 million (2005) and $2.65 million (2006). There were annual workout bonuses of $100,000.
But he is also due a $2 million options bonus in 2005 and that almost certainly will preclude any club from claiming him on waivers.
Never noted for his speed, Johnson nonetheless led the Browns in receptions in each of his first four seasons in Cleveland, and topped the team in catches again this year. Many scouts feel he has the best hands of any wide receiver in the NFL and that, while he lacks the playmaker skills of a "lead" wideout, is a prototype No. 2 wide receiver.
"Kevin had a diminished role in our offense, and he was not happy with it," Davis said. "We have a number of young, talented receivers in Quincy Morgan, Andre Davis, Dennis Northcutt, Andre King, Frisman Jackson and C.J. Jones. As a result, we did not foresee Kevin's role expanding in the future.
"This will enable him to get a fresh start, and it will allow our young receivers to continue to develop and improve. We wish Kevin all the best."
A second-round pick in the 1999 draft, and one of the few players remaining from the franchise's first year of its second incarnation, Johnson played in 73 games and started in all but one of them. He had 315 catches for 3,836 yards and 23 touchdowns. His average per catch this year, of just 9.5 yards, is well below his career standard of 12.6 yards, but there figures to be a strong market for Johnson among teams seeking to add a productive receiver for the stretch run.
A message left by the Associated Press seeking comment from Johnson's agent, Tom Condon, was not immediately returned.
The Browns said president Carmen Policy will address Johnson's release in a Wednesday morning news conference.
"I wanted to end my career here," Johnson told AP. "That's what hurts me the most."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.