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Choosing time is coming

Rob Johnson made his, now he's trying to force Bucs coach Jon Gruden to pick "flashy'' ahead of "consistent.''

By RICK STROUD, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published August 11, 2002

[Times photo: Toni L. Sandys]
Rob Johnson is happy with his choice of the Bucs. "It's all about being on a good team," he said.
LAKE BUENA VISTA -- It's split-second decisionmaking like this that always caused the most pain for quarterback Rob Johnson.

Do you tuck the football, get as much yardage as you can and prepare to be splattered? Or be patient, accept a little less and live to play another down?

"It is a fine line. You've got to pick and choose," Johnson said. "I was asking coach (Jon) Gruden that. I told him, "I could make one guy miss, and when I spun out, there was a guy there who would've killed me.'

"I asked him, "What do you want me to do?' He said, "I don't want to take away your instincts, but you've just got to be careful.' So there's really not an answer to it. You've got to feel and trust your teammates."

Johnson, 29, followed his instincts and trusted Gruden in March when he signed a one-year contract with the Bucs for the NFL minimum of $850,000, significantly less than the $5-million salary and the role as a starter he would have been guaranteed from a team such as the Bengals.

But as Johnson learned in four rough seasons in Buffalo, why be the bug when you can be the windshield?

"It's all about being on a good team," Johnson said. "I'm not one of those guys who needs a big contract. I wanted to win. You're going to get replaced as a quarterback if you don't win games. It's the bottom line. And if you're not on a good team, you're not going to win. The more you're in this league, the more you realize that."

That's why he contacted Gruden at the start of free agency. The Bucs coach promised him a chance to compete for the starting job with Brad Johnson.

Gruden plans to choose between Johnson and Johnson by this time next week, when his team will have played preseason games Monday against Miami and Friday at Jacksonville.

While he likes the steadiness of Brad Johnson, Gruden appears smitten by the athleticism and arm strength of Rob Johnson.

"Sooner or later, we've got to decide who's going to take the majority of the reps," Gruden said. "That's a hard position to get one guy ready to play, let alone three. We've got three guys we think can play. Performance is going to be the deciding factor. Right now, Brad Johnson has been the most consistent, Rob Johnson has been the most flashy and Shaun King is picking it up here the last couple of days.

"We think it's been fair, we've charted every rep. They may not think so, but we've done everything we can to give them an opportunity. At the same time, your offensive football team needs to start to respond to some regularity there at that position."

Who wins the job may depend on who completes the most passes to another Johnson -- receiver Keyshawn -- who says the race between Brad Johnson, 33, and his former Southern Cal teammate will come down to the wire.

"(Rob) may be the present or the future," Keyshawn Johnson said. "Maybe both. I don't know. Gruden has to make up his mind and decide what he wants to do about that. Whether it's today or tomorrow, I see Rob as a starting quarterback in the NFL. At some point, probably here."

Rob Johnson said he would be content to start the season as the backup, a position he did not relish in Buffalo when he and Doug Flutie engaged in a nasty feud, one that split teammates and fans from 1998-2000, until Flutie signed as a free agent with San Diego.

"I was the winner of a contest over (Flutie), the favorite son of Buffalo," Johnson said. "They told me early on it was going to be me, and every day I was geting raked in the papers because they love him so much up there. And it was like, "Listen, just keep him. Let me go.' "

Because of his SoCal roots, tan, sculpted physique and surfer looks, Johnson never fit in at Buffalo.

"It's one of those things that's hard to understand," Johnson said. "And my family is from Pittsburgh, they're steel mill workers. My mother is from Buffalo, actually. We all come from somewhere."

Johnson is tougher than the three-day stubble that hides most of his face. In fact, his ability to make yards with his feet and refusal to quit on a play has caused him to miss games with concussions and broken bones.

"I'm not brittle," Johnson said. "It seems like the little hits have gotten me. The big ones are fine. I got hit a lot, and that's why I've gotten hurt. I've got to do a better job of getting rid of the ball and not taking those hits. When I run, I've run kind of recklessly. These guys will try to hurt you."

But there are few quarterbacks in the NFL as dangerous running or passing as Johnson.

"Outside of Donovan McNabb and maybe Brett Favre, there's probably not a more athletic quarterback in the league than Rob Johnson," said Chris Mortensen, an NFL reporter for ESPN.

Gruden agrees. "When you have the "flash' ability of Rob Johnson, as I call it, when you're talking explosive mobility, explosive, quick arm and some experience, that's a real talent you can't ignore," he said.

Johnson plans to make his performance in preseason games tough for Gruden to discount when he decides on the starting quarterback. But he vows to be patient. "(Gruden) has got the perfect quarterback mind but he doesn't have the body, so he put it into one of us," Johnson said. "Whoever can get it ingrained in himself is going to be the one who plays."

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