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The Florida Keys

Keyshawn Johnson and Keenan McCardell figure to be the focal points of Jon Gruden's Gulf Shore offense.

By RICK STROUD, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 6, 2002

[Times photo: James Borchuck]
Keenan McCardell, left, and Keyshawn Johnson believe they will stand out in the crowd among NFL receiving tandems.

TAMPA -- Keyshawn Johnson never has been one to shy away from attention.

He was the street kid hustling to survive South Central Los Angeles, the Southern Cal ballboy pestering Marcus Allen, the flamboyant Trojans receiver who became the first overall pick by the New York Jets, and the brash rookie authoring a tell-all book.

Johnson has spent most of his life trying to be noticed, especially by quarterbacks.

But the Bucs receiver wished defenders would have ignored him occasionally last season.

"I think Keyshawn, every time he's catching the ball, he's getting hit with three people around him," quarterback Rob Johnson said.

This year, though, for the first time in his career, Johnson won't be the only receiver drawing a crowd.

This season, he will play opposite Keenan McCardell, signed as a free agent from the Jaguars, giving Tampa Bay one of the NFL's best receiving tandems.

"He's really the only established guy I've played opposite of," Johnson said. "I think it's going to make a hell of a lot of difference. And as the season progresses, you'll see."

While Johnson isn't likely to duplicate his 106-catch performance in 2001, fewer passes could equal more victories.

The Florida Keys figure to be focal points of Jon Gruden's Gulf Shore offense. McCardell's arrival has allowed Johnson to return to split end, the position he played for four seasons with the Jets. McCardell, who has four 1,000-yard receiving seasons in the past six years, will line up in the slot, drawing defenders with him.

It's a similar role that McCardell played in Jacksonville, where he teamed with Pro Bowl receiver Jimmy Smith.

"We can be as good as we want to be," McCardell said. "I think it takes us being together in training camp, realizing what we need to do together and what we need to do for this offense. I think both guys, myself and Keyshawn, we have a good understanding of this offense now. I really think it's up to us to take it to the next level.

"Michael (Pittman) is going to do his job, Brad (Johnson), Ken Dilger -- everybody is going to do their job. But it's up to me and Keyshawn to really step up and be some leaders and take us to the next level.

"I think (Jags coach) Tom (Coughlin) would say, 'It's kind of hard to have a receiver be your leader,' " McCardell added. "But after four years, he realized (the two receivers) were his leaders in Jacksonville. I think Jon knows that, and we need to step up and handle that as leaders. Make plays when the offense needs it."

By all indications, Johnson and McCardell will work well together. In the preseason, McCardell quickly absorbed the Bucs offense and will provide some dash to Johnson's flash.

"I can't say enough about (McCardell). I take a lot of pride every place I've been having a flanker be my best friend," Gruden said. "Whether it's Sterling Sharpe (at Green Bay) or Irving Fryar (at Philadelphia) or whoever, this guy is going to give us legitimate play-making ability on a weekly basis.

"I just think he's such a consistent guy. Even if the ball is not thrown to him, if he's a blocker, he's blocking. If he's an off-side route runner, he's running the right route. He's running it at full speed. He's a guy who sits in the front row, takes notes and he's into the game plan. He's a detailed guy. He's a pro."

In his first two seasons with the Bucs, Johnson's role was to complement an offense built on the running game. But McCardell and Giants free agent receiver Joe Jurevicius should bring balance to Gruden's offense.

"I think we have some unique abilities," Johnson said. "Both of us like to have fun in terms of making play after play. He makes one play, then I go and hurt the other guy and make a play, then he hurts a guy, and we stick Joe in there and he'll hurt a guy. That's the way to have fun."

Because of the title of his book (Just Throw Me the Damn Ball) and a well-publicized feud with Jets receiver Wayne Chrebet, Johnson always has been regarded as a selfish player. But he genuinely enjoys working with McCardell, who knows how to co-exist with another superstar receiver.

"Keenan brings a little pizazz to the offense," Brad Johnson said. "He just makes plays. Both of them are that way. I think the good thing about both of them (is that) they're proven. But we're going to make some mistakes. We always talk after the play. The communication is there. If you lose that, you're done. And both of them are really good to work with."

Gruden still has homework to do on both players. Johnson spent the off-season in L.A., although he attended all three minicamps. McCardell, who was released by the Jaguars in a salary cap saving move in June, was a late arrival to the offseason program.

"Sometimes it takes a little longer than six months and a couple preseason games, when you only play a guy 10 or 12 plays," Gruden said. "I'm learning about Keenan McCardell and Jurevicius. It's not like I brought a bunch of guys with me from other teams, coaches and players.

"I'm trying to learn how to manage them, how to turn them on and how to stimulate them and feature guys. Keyshawn is a guy I'm so excited to work with. And at the same time, I think we've got another guy in this house that is a go-to guy, a legitimate go-to horse in McCardell."

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