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Offense still is hoping for the best

The Bucs brought in Brad Johnson to lift the offense. The results have been mixed, but the final verdict isn't in just yet.

By ROGER MILLS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 12, 2002

It was a bitterly cold New Year's Eve, and the Bucs had just been humbled by the Eagles 21-3 in the first round of last season's playoffs.

For the second straight postseason game, Tampa Bay's offense had failed to score a touchdown, and among many of the offensive players there was disgust and disappointment.

In the offseason that followed, the Bucs made a switch at offensive coordinator by firing Les Steckel and promoting Clyde Christensen. But the move that was supposed to push Tampa Bay over the top was the acquisition of free-agent quarterback Brad Johnson.

The Bucs had hoped Johnson, a 10-year veteran known for his passing efficiency, would make a perfect duo with receiver Keyshawn Johnson.

Today, Tampa Bay returns to Veterans Stadium in a first-round rematch of last season knowing the quarterback in place is experienced, versed in dealing with adverse conditions and comfortable with the team's primary receiver.

"We certainly had high expectations, and there was a lot of excitement about the two of them (teaming up)," Christensen said about entering training camp with Johnson throwing to Johnson. "I wasn't sure when it would hit its stride. I was nervous the first week of training camp when Brad got hurt and missed that amount of training camp, since we were looking at some new things.

"We weren't sure when it would hit, but you did feel good about it. I think both their strengths complement each other. Keyshawn is so good on the deep crosses and the intermediate stuff, and Brad is really good at throwing the deep crosses and the intermediate stuff."

The Bucs enter the playoffs with one less victory than the team did last year, but little blame can be cast on the passing game. Brad Johnson has thrown for 3,406 yards and 13 touchdowns and Keyshawn Johnson, who made his third Pro Bowl, had a career-high and NFC-best 106 catches, many of which were critical.

"It's true, Keyshawn has been the workhorse all season long, and there may be a game when he needs 10 catches," Brad Johnson said. "You have to look at where a lot of his catches came. His catches came in the third down area and in the two-minute drill. Look how many times we were in the two-minute drill? A lot of times. It's not like all the calls are for him, but the coverages dictates where the ball goes, and obviously sometimes he's the primary guy."

Keyshawn Johnson, who sat out Sunday's regular-season finale, said Brad Johnson's presence coupled with the maturation of the coaching staff explains the turnaround in the final few weeks.

"I think every one has gotten better as the season went on, and I think our offensive staff got better too, as the season went on," Keyshawn Johnson said. "They got more familiar with what they should be doing, and it's been working for us."

But Johnsons and Christensen agree that despite the security of knowing how well the duo connect, Tampa Bay's fortunes against the Eagles rely on the Bucs being able to run the ball as well as they have in recent weeks and on Brad Johnson's ability to find receivers other than Keyshawn.

"If you look at the ratio of the second receiver, whoever it's been, they are right where they need to be," Brad Johnson said. "It just hasn't been that one guy. At the beginning of the season, that's where you wanted Warrick (Dunn), that's where you wanted Mike (Alstott), Dave (Moore) got the right number of catches. The ratio is there, it just hasn't been one guy."

In key wins over the Saints and the Ravens, the Bucs were able to involve more than just Keyshawn Johnson in the passing game. Against New Orleans, Tampa Bay had seven receivers make catches, including a game-high five by Dunn. There were 13 passes shared by five receivers against Baltimore.

"It's great, what it'll do is get them off my back," Keyshawn Johnson said. "I told them to throw them the ball and make me the decoy. I want to sneak up and get you. It's good for us. Brad and I know we're on the same page, we've been on the same page all year, even in the games when he hasn't thrown a lot of balls to me."

Added Christensen: "I think those guys are going to be the key for the playoffs, I really do. I don't know who it'll be, who would step up. Whether it's Karl (Williams), Reidel (Anthony), Jacquez (Green), Frank Murphy or Milton Wynn. You know Dave Moore is always good for a big play or two.

"So as we go into the playoffs, a lot of teams are going to show us double coverage on Keyshawn, and it's what we get coming out of that two spot. That other spot has to make big plays for us. It's real critical. I don't know who it will be, but we're going to need to get some big plays out of somebody else."

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