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Pressure falls on quarterback

By GARY SHELTON, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 2, 2002


NEW ORLEANS -- His shoulders are narrow, and it is easy to wonder how he can bear the load. His feet are slow, and it is possible to question how long he can lead the parade.

Still, Brad Johnson plods along.

Still, like a hopeful puppy, the offense of the Bucs tags along behind.

Every week, the Bucs depend more and more on Johnson. Every week, it becomes more and more clear the trend will continue. He is their chance. He is their hope.

It was that way Sunday night, too, when the Bucs lost a 23-20 game to the New Orleans Saints. Once more, the Bucs put too much in Johnson's hands. Once more, the game ended with them furiously, desperately, trying to get it there one more time.

What might Johnson have done in the end? What might the result have been if Johnson had had one more series in a three-point game? After the way Johnson drove his team for a late touchdown and two-point conversion, converting three fourth downs, who knows? Yes, it would have been a lot to ask, perhaps too much. But what's new about that?

As the NFL heads down its stretch drive, this is the concern with the Bucs. It isn't how much Brad can do. It's how much he's being asked to do.

For the Bucs, high demands on Johnson have become standard. The offense cannot run from here to there. The line cannot block this or that. What is left is Brad, good-old Brad, and the wonder of the 15-yard completion.

All teams ask a lot of their quarterbacks, of course, but with the Bucs and Johnson, it has reached unfair proportions. Johnson is a tough, competitive player, and it's high time the world acknowledged his abilities.

But Johnson isn't the type of quarterback who is supposed to strap a team across his shoulders and carry it through the postseason. He isn't McNabb, or Favre, or Vick. He isn't Warner, or Bledsoe, or Brooks.

In other words, Johnson is a pretty good player, but he's being asked to be a great one. He's a strong guy; he's being asked to be Atlas.

"Right now, it's all on the passing game," Bucs coach Jon Gruden said. "It's not at all what I'm accustomed to or what I'm going to get used to. We're going to try to work to correct this. I'm not blaming anybody but myself. We want to run the ball. We have to run the ball. Right now, we're a bit one-dimensional, and it's a problem."

Nature intended for quarterbacks such as Johnson to be orchestra leaders, a complementary quarterback who moves the ball around and guides a team with will and grit, with accuracy and timing. It did not intend for him to be the Last Starfighter.

Increasingly, however, the Bucs lean on Johnson. They break the huddle these days, and every time, the only chance of a gain appears to be Johnson dropping back, throwing another pass, absorbing another hit.

Consider this. The Bucs ran 64 plays against the Saints. Of those, 48 were passes. (The ratio was the same in the first half, too). This sums up the Bucs' attack: Three times out of four, they're asking Brad to complete a pass.

It's amazing when you think about it. All the money the Bucs invested in their offense, all the years of trying to juice it, all the reputation of Gruden, and the team can't run the ball as well as the expansion team in Houston. Or anyone else, for that matter.

If you are a Buc fan, that remains your biggest concern as the team approaches the playoffs. It still runs like a '64 Fairlane going up a mountain. You're surprised opponents keep more than four men, five tops, in the box.

The last time the Bucs made a significant journey through the playoffs, they did it by moving 3 yards at a time. Those Bucs were a rope-a-dope team, a running team that pushed and strained and waited for the right field position before bothering to try to score. This team is different. Because of the invisible running game, the primary means of transportation has become the mid-range crossing route. Scoring drives occur when Johnson -- and a pretty good corps of possession receivers -- can string enough of those together to reach the colored grass.

It's a tough way to live for a quarterback with slow feet and an average arm. It's a life of second and 9, a life of helmets in the ribs. Johnson has to absorb a lot of body punches to keep games close.

Consider: On the Bucs' 90-yard scoring drive in the first half, they ran once for no yards. On the 87-yard drive in the second half, they ran three times for no yards. Everything else was Air Brad.

If this team could run, even a little, you wonder how good Johnson could be. If it could block every now and again, you wonder if he might pick teams apart.

This much is also clear. Brad Johnson is the Bucs' chance. He will be the life of the Bucs, or he will be the death of them. No one matters more to this team's hopes. No one is asked to carry a larger share of the load.

In a world that's fair, that doesn't happen. It's too much to ask, too big a load to hoist.

On the other hand, if you are the Bucs, what other choice is there?

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