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In team effort, QB stands out

Best offensive performance of season revolves around Brad Johnson and his 4 TDs.

By ROGER MILLS, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 9, 2002

TAMPA -- It was Friday morning, in the final stages of preparation for Sunday's game against the Falcons, when Bucs coach Jon Gruden called a special meeting with his skill position players.

He whipped out the film of the loss to New Orleans and spent time convincing every man that a few plays here and there would have changed the complexion of that game.

He sent a message that all it takes for the Bucs offense to click, like the defense routinely does, was total team effort.

Led by a near-perfect performance from quarterback Brad Johnson, the offensive specialists provided the season's best display of Gruden Ball en route to a 34-10 clipping of the Falcons.

This was Johnson at his best, the offense at its best.

"We were missing, just off a little bit, and I think we realized that for us to be where we want to be we have to step up and make plays," said receiver Keenan McCardell, who finished with four receptions for 49 yards and two touchdowns. "Some of the guys on offense realize, 'Hey, we've got to do this. These guys (on defense) are setting the tone. So let's do the same.' That's what you're supposed to do. Every time you step on the field, you're supposed to play with that intensity."

They did, and some.

Against a Falcons defense that was giving up an average of 17 points, the Bucs scored twice that. Against a Falcons defense that had 15 sacks in the past two games, the Bucs gave up one.

There was more.

Johnson, quickly pushing himself into serious Pro Bowl consideration, went 23-of-31 for 276 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions. He completed passes to seven receivers, four of whom had receptions of 20 yards or more.

"If we can surround him with a little bit better play calling and a little better protection, a little bit better running game, the guy is a very talented guy," Gruden said. "Fifty wins as a starting quarterback puts you in a real select group of guys. There's not a lot of quarterbacks that can say that."

And those running backs, who have been criticized virtually all season? They accounted for 150 yards on 29 carries, including 95 on 13 by Mike Alstott, 30 on four by Aaron Stecker and 75 yards total offense from Michael Pittman.

"Coach Gruden knows what we have in this room, and that should be a testament to our coaching staff," said receiver Joe Jurevicius, who led the Bucs with eight catches for 100 yards and two scores. "They know what they have and they know how to use what they have. If you don't know how to use what you have, then you're not going to be very successful. (Gruden) did a great job this week evaluating what we can do as a team this week as an offense, and it showed out there on the field."

No one showed more than Johnson. The 11-year veteran out of Florida State is playing at a level unseen in a Bucs uniform in years. In his past five games, Johnson has 15 touchdowns and one interception, and the Bucs are 4-1.

"He's unbelievable," Jurevicius said. "He's big, he's strong, he's got an arm and he's very smart. When you have that on your team, nothing but good things can happen to you. He's a kind of guy that doesn't let the negative affect him. If something goes negative, the next play more than likely will be positive with Brad."

Johnson, who has been through too much to become overly excited about any one play, much less any one win, said he was pleased with his effort and the overall performance of the team.

"When we're playing like we are right now, you're going to see the high fives, you're going to see guys jumping up and down and see guys, especially the receivers, working for each other," Johnson said. "(You're going to see) the offensive line just giving me that last little heartbeat in pass protection to make plays. And our running backs are running the ball. Sometimes, things don't go well for us, but we believe in each other. That's the biggest thing."

Johnson, who consistently downplays the importance of stats, said his numbers are a product of the system and what the opposing defense gives up.

"Coverage always dictates where the ball goes," said Johnson, who has 22 touchdowns and six interceptions on the season. "That's the way this offense is set up. That's the way I'm programmed."

Added McCardell: "I think it was our best effort. Brad is starting to be real comfortable behind the line. The line is starting to pick up things and see things. And we're working hard during the week. If you're at this time of the year and you're a team that's still improving, you've got a good shot, a good shot to be in the playoffs. That's what we're trying to do."

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