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Keeping up with the Johnsons

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By GARY SHELTON, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published March 12, 2002

Somewhere, a man hunches over a piece of paper, trying as hard as he can to imagine the future.

His face twists as he tries to predict the competition yet to come. He runs his hands through his hair, attempting to separate strength from weakness, pro from con. His pencil is frozen in the air as he tries to decide who will be best and who will be something less.

No, this is not Jon Gruden working out his NCAA bracket.

This is Gruden working out his depth chart at quarterback.

The Bucs signed another quarterback over the weekend. Of course they did. The Bucs, a team that needs a tight end and a receiver and a running back and a cornerback, a team that has lost a defensive end and a receiver and a tight end and a linebacker, a team that may yet lose a running back and a receiver and a cornerback and a center, now has enough quarterbacks for a game of gin rummy.

Rob Johnson, you hereby have our permission to feel welcome.

Brad Johnson, you hereby have our permission to feel nervous.

Keyshawn Johnson, you hereby have our permission to announce your endorsement at any point.

This is the kind of signing that leads you to believe one of two things. The first is that Gruden loves players named Johnson. To that end, expect the Bucs to pursue Doug Johnson, Rudi Johnson, Norm Johnson, Pete Johnson, Gary "Big Hands" Johnson and Johnson Unitas in the coming weeks. Any day, Tampa Bay is going to be sued by Johnson City, Tenn., for copyright infringement.

The second belief you may have is Gruden wasn't exactly thrilled about the quarterback situation he inherited.

As theories go, there is reason to subscribe to this one. If you remember, Gruden spent an awful lot of his introductory speech praising backup quarterback Shaun King. He also mentioned bringing in "a lot of arms" to compete for the quarterback job.

If you are Brad Johnson, this could not have been exactly like hearing a love sonnet.

It is an eye-of-the-beholder position, quarterback, and who knows what Gruden sees when he looks at Brad? Does he see the guy who was at his best in the final two minutes of a half, or a guy who was at his worst in the playoff loss to the Eagles? Does he see enough arm, enough mobility, enough daring for what he wishes for his offense to accomplish? Does he think he can change Brad's maddening shorter-the-better approach to the passing game?

At the end, it comes to this: Does Gruden look at Brad and see Rob? Or, does he look at Rob and see Rich?

Go back, if you will, in Gruden's history with the Raiders. Once, he picked up another quarterback who had been chewed up and spit out by the NFL. In that case, it was Rich Gannon, who had shown a few flaws of his own in his stints with Minnesota and Kansas City. For goodness' sake, the Chiefs kept Elvis Grbac in order to let him go, which takes some living down.

Somewhere, however, Gruden saw a bit of grit in Gannon. And under Gruden's tutelage, Gannon became a Pro Bowl quarterback.

Now flash forward a few years and you can see some of the same attributes in Rob Johnson. He's athletic. He has a live arm. Can he, too, be a reclamation project?

At this point, you'd have to say, firmly and without hesitation: Maybe. With a one-year, $1-million contract, he's worth a look. Buffalo, like a lot of places, didn't have an overabundance of offensive creativity.

Let's be honest. Merely the fact that Rob Johnson was available at a test-drive price suggests the league has spotted a few flaws in the guy. If Johnson were all that and a bag of sneakers, the general manager for some team would have been waiting in the parking lot the day he was released by the Bills. Johnson still can appear befuddled in the pocket. He still hangs onto the ball as if it belonged to him. And, word is, the guy absolutely hates Flutie Flakes.

On the other hand, he is an interesting mix of abilities, and there are a lot of quarterbacks out there who didn't wow them from the start. It's hard to blame the Bucs for shopping in the discount bin.

That said, if you were making odds, the smart bet still is on Brad to start. Make him even money. Make King 2-1. At this point, Rob Johnson is a long shot. Call it 10-1. But the statement is, for the first time in years, the quarterback job can be won. Oh, the Bucs have always said the job was open, but it hasn't been for some time. Now, it seems to be.

That's the statement to this signing. Gruden is saying he doesn't want people to be too comfortable, that he likes a little bit of uneasiness out of his quarterback. When you run an offense as complex as Gruden's, it is important to feel a proper kinship with one's quarterback.

Maybe Brad turns out to be that. Or Shaun. Or Rob.

Who knows? Maybe the Bucs could draft a guy, too. I understand there is an interesting quarterback from Indiana, for instance, named Antwaan Randle El.

Translated loosely, it means "Johnson."

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