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Johnson runs limited drills

By ROGER MILLS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 22, 2002

TAMPA -- The mood was a little more upbeat at One Buc Place as starting quarterback Brad Johnson, who did not practice most of last week, participated in limited drills Saturday.

Backup Shaun King received the bulk of the snaps and is being readied to start Monday night against the Steelers, but the Bucs hope Johnson will be ready.

Coach Jon Gruden said the decision on whether to play would be Johnson's.

"He got a little bit involved today in the practice," Gruden said. "A little bit, not a lot. We'll see how it goes over the next day and a half, and if Brad's ready to go he'll go, and if not Shaun King will be the starter.

"I don't like to answer for Brad, getting information (from him) is hard to acquire. But I think he's slowly but surely making some strides. I do know he's still sore and still restricted to some degree, but he was able to participate (Saturday), which is encouraging."

Johnson, 34, is suffering from a severe bruise of the lower back sustained late in the fourth quarter Dec. 15 in Detroit. He had little range of motion early last week but felt improved enough Thursday to throw on the side. That aggravated his sore back and forced Johnson to sit out practice Friday. Johnson was not available for comment.

"(His range of motion) is improving a little bit, but it's still not where it needs to be to play in the NFL," Gruden said.

"He is making some improvements. Who knows, I've seen these things make rapid improvements in short periods of time."

Bucs officials also stressed that reports Johnson had a fractured bone in his lower back were inaccurate.

"Well, all the X-rays and tests have been done and I've been assured that there is nothing," Gruden said. "I don't know where they're getting that from, but they're not on the Bucs medical staff.

"He's been cleared to play medically. They gave him all the X-rays, all the tests. We would never, ever risk anybody out here if he was injured to that degree. But we live in a very short-term arena here. This is a big game, and if our starting quarterback is ready to play in it he'll play."

The intense preparation of King continues, but Gruden said the Bucs will stick to their plan to wait until Monday night to decide if Johnson will play.

"Brad will come in, just like he did prior to the Minnesota game when he had cracked ribs for a couple of weeks, just like in Philadelphia when we took him out of there when the rib injury got to be too much," Gruden said, "If he claps three times, that means he likes it and is ready to go. If he doesn't clap, then he's probably not feeling too good.

"Sometime tomorrow or sometime Monday, he'll let us know."

Gruden said he isn't worried about Johnson's sharpness after not practicing full speed. Johnson, who has started 13 of the Bucs 14 games, is 281-of-451 for 3,049 yards with 22 touchdowns and six interceptions. "We're very confident with the preparation that Brad has had throughout the season, and mentally, in the classroom, he's been all over what we're trying to do," Gruden said. "If he's physically ready to go, he's one of the few guys that can survive without a lot of reps.

"I remember they were telling me that (Titans quarterback Steve) McNair, against the Giants, could not throw in pregame warmup. There was some word that he was for sure out. Next thing you know he's MVP of the league that week. These pro football players are something else, you really admire the fight inside and the passion to play. Brad Johnson's at the top of that list."

If Johnson can't play, Gruden said the team is ready with King.

"We all want (Johnson) to play, but at the same time we're going to show confidence in Shaun King," Gruden said.

"We did so with Rob Johnson in Carolina. This is Shaun King's opportunity. It's a great test ... to get your first start and play against a defense that's on a great roll right now.

KEEPING PERSPECTIVE: Gruden said the Bucs have not been sidetracked by the Johnson/King scenario or the hype surrounding comments made by Steelers safety Lee Flowers. He said his team is focused on what it should be.

"You have an opportunity to win the NFC South division championship, you better max out for that, especially against the Pittsburgh Steelers," Gruden said. "It's a great opportunity for us to max out and finish what has been a pretty good first 15 weeks.

"Last week the upsets were all over the sports pages, and if you're not ready to play they will be all over the sports pages again. Just because you're playing at home, or just because ... just because doesn't mean anything. You have to go out and find ways to win in this league."

SHORT WEEK AHEAD: With the game Monday night, the Bucs must consider whether further injury to Brad Johnson could limit his availability for the season finale in Chicago.

"The preparation schedule is going to be very unique," Gruden said. "We won't get done and get home until probably 1 a.m. (Tuesday) or so, and then Tuesday we prepare for the Bears, and it is Christmas Eve and we do have people with families and children. Then Wednesday is Christmas."

The Bucs plan a full practice schedule Wednesday, starting later than usual to allow players, coaches and staff family time.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: "My mom and dad took us outside and there were actual hoof prints of reindeer in our driveway. Ever since that time, I've been trying to stay up late to find the reindeer, but that was the most memorable Christmas because there were actual hoof prints in the snow at our house. It was unbelievable. They were in our driveway, hundreds of them. Still today, I never forget that day. I've seen hoof prints, but that's the closest I've gotten to the big fella." -- Gruden.

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