Brad Johnson is not flashy, but he has been a steadying influence for the Bucs' improving offense.
By ROGER MILLS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 1, 2002
When veteran receiver Keenan McCardell arrived in Tampa Bay, he couldn't understand why quarterback Brad Johnson didn't take risks from time to time.
Coming from years of playing with the Jaguars' Mark Brunell, McCardell said he often wondered why Johnson didn't routinely try to squeeze a pass through tight coverage, or hurl one deep, or simply put one up for grabs.
Now, he fully understands.
"The guy would rather be safe and smart because he knows, with this defense, we'll be back," McCardell said Monday. "It's a perfect approach for this team. We don't have to score 30 points to win. We don't need to. Brad understands that."
As the Bucs drive toward a playoff spot and possible NFC South title, McCardell's outspoken confidence in his starting quarterback and his testimony to the value of Johnson's pocket experience underline the progress made by the offense.
Across the board, the offense seems better today than it was after the season-opening 26-20 loss to the Saints. The line has made tremendous strides, giving up 25 sacks, compared to 38 after 11 games last year. The running game is gaining 92.3 yards per game, compared to 72 on Sept. 8. Backs and receivers have become familiar with the philosophy and overcome injuries.
But the main reason, according to his teammates and coaches, is outstanding leadership and patience from the quarterback. "(Brad's) got great management skills, and I think he understands that as a quarterback you have four downs to make 10 yards," coach Jon Gruden said. "As long as it's in normal operating procedure, he can get it done. If it's second and 18, or third and 18, he realizes those percentages are kind of like winning a lottery.
"He does a great job of knowing that sometimes making the best play, the only play, is throwing it away and keeping our team in a legitimate down and distance situation where we have a chance to convert."
Johnson's patience and stewardship -- conservative as they may be to the layman -- have proven integral to the Bucs' 9-2 record. In leading the Bucs to eight wins in his 10 starts, Johnson has completed 206 of 335 passes (61.5 percent) for 2,244 yards and 16 touchdowns. He has thrown five interceptions, been sacked 16 times and thrown the ball away 48 times. "I would rather throw the ball to the open guy, to tell you the truth," said Johnson, who is in his 11th season. "That's the way the system works. Move the chains. There's a time to force and a time not to, and a lot of it depends on the game, the situation and the area of the field. There have been some thrown into tight coverage, trust me.
"But always, my biggest thing is to give guys the opportunity to move the chains, score points and win games. To do that, everyone has to be on the same page, and that's what the quarterback's job is about. He's only as good as those people around him. We're all winning together. But I have played the same way every year for 11 years. You look at the games and that's the way I play."
In three games in November, Johnson completed 61 of 96 attempts (63.5 percent) for 700 yards. During that three-game winning streak, Johnson had nine touchdowns and no interceptions for a quarterback rating of 125.3.
"He's been careful with the ball and hasn't forced it into traffic," Gruden said. "In the last three weeks, he's playing at an unbelievable level in terms of quarterback play. Not just in managing the game but distributing the ball."
In the season opener against the Saints, a game in which the Bucs trailed from the first quarter, Johnson threw for 278 yards and two touchdowns, but was sacked three times. For the season, the Bucs offense is averaging 214.4 passing yards and less than two touchdowns.
Johnson, 34, said the numbers can be misleading and pointed out that at 9-2, the Bucs offense clearly has made strides.
"Obviously, there is a comfort level with the offensive line playing together, recognizing fronts and blitzes," Johnson said. "They've gotten much better and the skilled guys have gotten much more familiar with what we expect from the play. I feel like we're getting better and better and we've been fortunate enough to not get into a turnover-frenzy type of game. The numbers can be skewed every way you want them to be, but the key is how you manage the game."
Also noticeable, teammates say, is Johnson's resilience.
"Early on, when as an offensive line we weren't doing what we needed to do, I saw Brad take some tremendous shots and just get up and brush them off and say, 'Next play, let's move on,' " guard Cosey Coleman said. "This past game, he took a finger in the eye and still came back and fought through it. His toughness is tremendous. You look from an offensive standpoint, your quarterback pretty much runs the show on offense, and if he's sitting there fighting through pain and showing his toughness it's got to make everybody else want to do the same."
If there was any doubt about Johnson's value, consider last weekend's 21-7 win over the Packers. Hurt in the first quarter, Johnson missed two series while team doctors tended to his bruised eye.
After the game, teammates on both sides of the ball said that knowing Johnson was out resulted in a "tightening of the screws."
"When Brad went out of the game, I looked at the (defense) and said, 'Let's lock tight. We don't have our quarterback right now,' " defensive tackle Warren Sapp said after the game.
Added McCardell: "A lot of guys have that confidence in Brad right now. I understand what the team meant when they said that we had to pull together. But right now, the guys feel like Brad is the leader and he's the guy who needs to be under center."