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1 for the ageless

By RICK STROUD, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 9, 2002


TAMPA -- They came to see the league's hottest quarterback. From what they had heard, he was unstoppable.

He broke the huddle, and the fans moved to the edge of their seats. He dropped back to pass, and the air seemed to go out of the stadium. He flicked his wrist, and the scoreboard changed.

As he ran off the field, the crowd pressed against the rails to get a closer look at the face of the NFL's most sizzling passer.

It looked a lot like Brad Johnson.

On a day when the Falcons' Michael Vick was to show how he is revolutionizing the quarterback position, Johnson proved the old way works fine.

The 11-year veteran threw four touchdowns, two each to Joe Jurevicius and Keenan McCardell, and 276 yards in leading the Bucs to a 34-10 rout of the Falcons.

"Nothing against the young fellow, but I'll take my throwback guy," Bucs defensive tackle Warren Sapp said of Johnson. "I'll take my five-step drop-back passer. I'll take my 63 percent, dink and dunk and mow them all down."

The victory improved the Bucs to 10-3 and ended the Falcons' eight-game unbeaten streak. With the series sweep, the Bucs finished their first season in the NFC South at 4-2 and lead New Orleans by one game with three to play.

The Bucs can clinch a playoff spot next week if they defeat the Lions or the Giants lose to the Cowboys.

While Vick has been explosive against most of the NFL, he continued to fizzle against the Bucs. Despite his speed, he was held to 15 rushing yards and sacked twice. Despite his rocket arm, he completed 12 of 25 passes for 125 yards and was intercepted once.

"The first two hits we put on him, he got a little wide-eyed," Sapp said. "And he looked around, and it was like he said, 'Whoa, this ain't the Carolina Panthers.' This was our showcase. This is the first game we've been totally ignored. All you heard about was Michael Vick. I got so tired of it, I turned off the TV.

"We were sitting around last week, and (Derrick) Brooks said to me, 'The man has been hot for eight weeks. We've been hot for eight years."

No quarterback has been hotter lately than Johnson, who has thrown 15 touchdowns and just one interception in the past five games. Sunday, his quarterback rating was 140.6 compared with Vick's 59.6 and he set a team record with his 22nd touchdown pass of the season. Johnson engineered two 80-yard touchdown drives in helping the Bucs rack up 421 total yards. For a change, he had help from the running game.

Tampa Bay rushed for 150 yards, led by Mike Alstott's 95 on 13 carries. Alstott's 27-yard run helped set up Johnson's first touchdown, a 10-yarder to Jurevicius.

A free agent from the Giants, Jurevicius had struggled to find playing time behind McCardell and Keyshawn Johnson. But Sunday, he broke out with eight catches for 100 yards and two touchdowns, mimicking the Falcons' Dirty Bird and Pass the Magic dances during end zone celebrations.

All last week, Johnson listened and read the national and local fawning about the unique athletic gifts of Vick. But Sunday, with outstanding protection from his offensive line, he sat in the pocket and dissected the Falcons defense.

Johnson said there still is room in the NFL for drop-back passers.

"I saw Tom Brady win a Super Bowl last year. I saw Trent Dilfer win it the year before that," Johnson said. "I saw Kurt Warner win it. I saw John Elway, when he was not the running guy he used to be, win two of them. Troy Aikman won three. There are a lot of different ways to do it.

"When you keep making plays like they can, it's a great addition. It's new because guys never made plays like that before. It's great for the league. But there are different ways to win."

Meanwhile, Vick was pinned by the pressure applied by the Bucs' front four, which also drew four holding penalties. When Vick threw checkdown passes, his running backs sustained punishing hits. When he tried to throw deep, linebacker Shelton Quarles was 25 yards downfield defending the middle of the Bucs' two-deep zone.

"I've never run up against a team like that. There was nothing I could do," said Vick, who was held to 1 yard rushing in a little more than a half in the Bucs' 20-6 victory at Atlanta on Oct.6. "They kept me contained. You try to get around the corners, and there's Simeon Rice and a defensive back.

"Definitely (they defend me the best). I think it's because of the talent of their defense. Up front, teams in this league might have one or two good pass rushers. On this team, you have four. Then you have three All-Pro linebackers."

Even the reserves were too much for Vick. When safety John Lynch left during the first quarter with a neck strain, John Howell sacked Vick on third and 1 on his first play.

"We just put more bullets in the chamber," Sapp said.

This is the quickest the Bucs have reached 10 wins. Their ranking as the NFL's No.1 defense is secure. Yet Vick stole last week's headlines.

"All the talk all week has been, "How do you stop Michael Vick,"' Bucs coach Jon Gruden said. "And we've already said time and time again, we respect him immensely. But I didn't hear anybody in America say, 'How's he going to go up against this defense?"'

Sapp said he still regards Vick as the most electrifying player in the league. But he is 0-1 at Raymond James Stadium. The Packers' Brett Favre hasn't won there in five tries. The Rams' Warner is 0-2.

"Usually, we take care of the big boys here," Sapp said. "This is the wrong place to make a statement."

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