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Who's Gruden's passing fancy?

Bucs coach Jon Gruden has three very capable quarterbacks to lead his offense but no clear-cut starter. He still insists there is no controversy.

[Times photo: James Borchuck]
Rob Johnson, left, shares a laugh with Brad Johnson, right. But don't misunderstand the jovial nature, they're fighting for the starting QB nod.

By RICK STROUD, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 28, 2002


LAKE BUENA VISTA -- In training camp, most coaches run from a quarterback controversy like their shoes are on fire.

They profess their undying love for the starter. Insist the other passers accept their roles and accuse the media of stirring up more things than Martha Stewart.

Then there's Jon Gruden.

Not only does the Bucs coach admit the job is up for grabs, any minute you expect him to start taking applications.

By the time the Bucs place a cleat on the lavish lawn at Disney's Wide World of Sports on Monday, Gruden will have reacted to every read and scrutinized every spiral made by his quarterbacks during three minicamps and four months of offseason workouts.

He also has arrived at only this conclusion: Brad Johnson will take the first snap, Rob Johnson the second and Shaun King the third.

Monday, it might be the other way around.

"I don't want to make this a mind game or a head game or anything like that," Gruden said. "I just want desperately for one of those three guys to step up and clearly show the city of Tampa, show the National Football League who's most deserving to be our quarterback."

Rest assured, Gruden likes his choices. All three have quarterbacked teams to the playoffs. Each easily could start for half the clubs in the NFL. And none appears willing to concede what will be one of the best arms races since the Cold War.

"I sense it is a true competition in one sense that there's no history to it," general manager Rich McKay said. "Jon has no history with these guys and these guys have not played in his system. So it's going to be interesting to see how the three guys play it out. Now I think Brad had a very nice offseason with the offense. I think we know what Brad can do. So it's going to be interesting to see how the other two guys do in camp. I think it's going to be fun to watch."

Brad Johnson, 34 on Sept. 13, is the most experienced. He also is the most consistent. His career completion percentage of 61.6 percent is the third best in history behind only Joe Montana and Steve Young.

Last season, Johnson broke or tied seven team passing records on his way to starting all 16 games for only the second time in his career. That's no small accomplishment considering the pounding he absorbed. He was sacked 47 times, and his 559 attempts were the most in the league.

Gruden, however, had no loyalty to Johnson and could not be sure how he would fit into a scheme that has favored quarterbacks who make as many plays with their feet as their arm.

"I thought two things," Johnson said of Gruden. "One, he didn't know much about our personnel at all. And I don't think he'd ever been around me. I think you always have to prove yourself. Three years from now, if we're still playing together, I'll have to prove myself. That's just the way the league is. He has to prove he can coach in Tampa and I have to prove I can be a quarterback in Tampa."

Johnson proved enough to Gruden to retain the title of starter heading into training camp. "Brad Johnson is our starter," Gruden said emphatically. "He earned the right by what he did in the offseason.

"A veteran quarterback like Brad Johnson, who has been on explosive offenses in Minnesota and Washington, that's something we want from him. And he's capable, more than capable."

While Gruden inherited Johnson and King, it was Rob Johnson whom he personally regarded as a perfect fit for his offense. By the third minicamp, the Bills free agent had passed King as the No. 2 quarterback and closed the gap on the starting job.

The best pure athlete among Bucs quarterbacks, Rob Johnson still has to overcome his propensity for taking too many sacks and produce in games.

"What Rob Johnson has to do is he's got to put it all together," Gruden said. "You see the athletic ability, you see the rocket arm. But can you do it on a play-by-play basis? Stay healthy. Sometimes the best play you can make is throwing the ball away because it's the only play. Just put it all together and you might have one hell of a quarterback."

Although the 29-year-old Johnson says there's no friction among Bucs QBs after his much-publicized rift with Doug Flutie in Buffalo, he isn't lacking for confidence.

"All the quarterbacks played their best football they've ever played under (Gruden). So hopefully, I can beat Brad out and that will happen for me," Johnson said last week during an interview on Jim Rome's radio show.

"If I go in there and play the way I'm capable of playing and stay healthy, I don't think there's anyone who can beat me out in the league. But I've got to prove that. And I think going to a coach like Jon Gruden, he'll let you do that. If I have to sit there and back up for a game or a year, I'll do that."

King, 25, may have a tough time reclaiming the throne. Despite a 15-9 record as a starter and piloting the Bucs to within four minutes of a Super Bowl appearance as a rookie in 1999, he spent last season on the bench. King also is a free agent in February.

Gruden's is the fourth system he will operate in as many years. And King never has been an impressive practice player. But Gruden might be surprised at his playmaking ability in games.

"I've seen his quotes," Gruden said. "This is his fourth system in four years. So immerse yourself in it. Get friendly with it, have some fun with it and let it work for you.

"To win the job, you've got to do what a quarterback needs to do. We've got to move the football. Score points. We obviously want to try to eliminate as many negative plays as possible. Sacks. Turnovers. We want the guy who is well-prepared and can lead his team. The guy who has the intangibles and has the playmaking ability to put points on the board.

"With the absence of Joe Hamilton, there is a chance we'll pick up another quarterback," Gruden said. "We're looking into that now."

Of course he is.


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Today's lineup

Bucs

  • New location could mean new chemistry
  • Who's Gruden's passing fancy?
  • Southern Fryed

  • Gary Shelton
  • Bucs D has to have all of the answers

  • Rays
  • Rays are the show in victory
  • Torre to Mondesi: Do things right way
  • Sandberg keeps focus
  • Rays tales
  • It's a lesson learned: downplay prospect

  • Lightning
  • Lightning re-signs wing Willis for a season

  • Other sports

    Tour de France
  • Armstrong cements grip on Tour de France

  • Storm
  • Storm is bound for 2nd round

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  • Motorsports
  • Seeking finish to equal start

  • Et cetera
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  • Learning to shoot gun not terrifying after all

  • Baseball
  • Rolen is open to idea of trade to Cardinals
  • Clemens pitches 5 innings in Class A
  • Hitchcock has a good rehab outing
  • Wizard redefined term shortstop

  • NFL
  • Saints assume absent QB Brooks is holding out
  • QB Carr is impressing teammates at camp

  • Preps
  • Armwood advances to state
  • Palm Harbor in the thick of it

  • Letters
  • Indians owner on mark regarding Steinbrenner
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