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Brad just goes out and plays

By GARY SHELTON, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 4, 2002

TAMPA -- You play. That's all.

TAMPA -- You play. That's all.

It doesn't matter if your ribs are in more pieces than originally intended. It doesn't matter how much they ache, or how often. It doesn't matter if no one would blame you for taking a week to heal.

You play. That's all.

The season has been painful, brutal, and the officials have spent two months peeling one defensive lineman or another off you. The offense has been stuck in dry-dock, and the most popular sound in the stadium is the call for the backup. Others would place you in bubble-wrap because of the bigger Sundays to come.

And you play. That's all.

For Brad Johnson, it is as simple as this. You play. You play because you can play. You play because not playing feels worse than a few helmets to the rib cage. You play because you are the quarterback, the captain, and teammates expect you to swallow your pain.

Johnson, the under-appreciated, over-assaulted quarterback of the Bucs, showed Tampa Bay a little about pluck and a lot about potential Sunday afternoon against the Vikings. On an afternoon when many didn't think he should play, or be allowed to, Johnson seemed to heal himself and his team.

Despite broken ribs and a broken offense, Johnson hit 24 of 31 passes for 313 yards and five touchdowns. His rating of 148.3 was only 10 points shy of a perfect score.

So this is how Johnson looks when he's upright, huh?

Who knew?

It has been a long time since a Bucs quarterback has looked this sharp, this tough, thisaccurate. It has been a long time, too, since he has been this unmolested. The Vikings couldn't touch Johnson, and failing that, they had no hope of covering his receivers.

And that's the point. Maybe, if he gets this kind of time, Johnson can give the Bucs this kind of performance. (Okay, maybe playing against Minnesota's gaggle of plodding cornerbacks has something to do with it, but short of scheduling the Vikings for homecoming, perhaps the Bucs should concentrate on protection.)

You doubted Johnson should play, didn't you? Most of us did. If you'll remember, I was one of those who was convinced the smart way to play this was to give Sunday to Shaun King and give Johnson an extra week to heal.

Johnson wouldn't hear of it. He has spent too many Sundays on the sideline, watching someone else play. He was determined that if the only question was enduring the ache, then he was going to play. What's a little pain among friends?

"I think I need to be there every game, every practice," Johnson said. "You only get 16 of these days. If you can play, you should play."

There have been a lot of days to make you discuss what Johnson lacks. To recap: He's slow, which accentuates the problems that have riddled the line this year. His arm lacks strength, and sometimes he seems to play safe.

"I'm not a flashy guy," Johnson said, shrugging.

"You're not going to see a lot of highlights of me on TV. You're not going to see me dancing around. You're not going to get a lot of one-liners from me."

Ah, but this was a day to acknowledge what Johnson has, rather than what he lacks. He's tough, for one thing. Come Sunday, you can wrap him up and point him toward the field. This is the finest compliment you can give Johnson. He's got a little grit to him. If coach Jon Gruden wanted to bench him, he'd have to buy rope and hire security guards.

"He's a bull," defensive tackle Warren Sapp said.

"It killed him not to play last week."

"He's the toughest quarterback I've ever seen," tackle Kenyatta Walker said.

Gruden, too, likes Johnson's toughness. But he'll also talk about the hidden things Johnson brings to the game -- audibles and throwaways and clock management -- that few people notice. He loves Johnson's attention to detail.

Perhaps that's why Gruden never wavered. Oh, he watched Johnson closely, just to make sure his health matched his heart. Barring that, Gruden wasn't going to take Johnson out of the lineup.

"When a veteran player gets into his 30s and he says he can go, then he can go," Gruden said. "We needed this game bad, and we needed our quarterback, our captain, our leader to go if he could go.

"We spend so much time together our wives might get upset," Gruden said. "There was no way he could fool me."

So Johnson played, behind the line that has struggled so this year, with a depleted receiving corps, with a running game that still hasn't emerged. None of it mattered. The Bucs kept Johnson standing, and in the end, he did the same for them.

"Maybe I should crack the other side," Johnson said.

Maybe he should. Who knows? Maybe he will. But it doesn't matter.

Odds are, he'd play through that, too.

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