© St. Petersburg Times, published December 30, 2002
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- For the Bucs, the finest play of the night came late, far away from the crowd and the cameras.
It was there, in the northwest corner of the field, that Brad Johnson walked easily, comfortably, toward the locker room.
The game was over, and the playoffs were ahead of him. Johnson walked for a while, then broke into a trot. He ran, free and smooth if a bit slow, toward the locker room.
On a night when there was not much to cheer from the offense, it was the finest sight you could imagine.
He is their hope, their chance. If there is something different about these Bucs, something that gives you hope that this team might not be one-and-done the way its predecessors have been the past two seasons, it is Johnson.
If the past two weeks have proven nothing else, it is how badly the Bucs need Brad. With Shaun King, they were crushed by the Steelers. With Rob Johnson, they were chaotic against the Bears. What else do you need to know?
With Brad Johnson, they have a chance.
Without him, they do not.
It is as simple as that, and as complex. There was a CNN-SI report Sunday night that said Johnson has a stress fracture in his vertebra and that he is improbable for the playoffs. The report, Jon Gruden said, was "false and misleading."
Ask Johnson that and he does not answer. He talks in circles, about how he isn't going to chase ghosts and such, but he never confirms the injury or denies it.
"I'm playing," he said. "To me, it's a question of whether I'm healthy or not healthy. I'm going to play. I could have played tonight. I told Jon that if he needed me in the fourth quarter, if Rob was hurt, then I could go in."
The Bucs need him. For most of the night, it was difficult to distinguish the Bucs from the Bears. One team was on its way it its 12th victory, and one to its 12th loss. It was hard to tell the difference.
For most of the night, this was dreadful to watch. It was an ugly game in an ugly town in an ugly year that was, as near as can be figured, somewhere around 1958. That's how far the Bucs' 15-0 win over the Bears set back the NFL.
This is how the Bucs herald their arrival into the playoffs? This is how they send a warning that they are different? By wallowing in the dirt with a team whose only remaining goal was to end this season? By allowing the Bears to hang around until the news was on?
After a weekend in which every other team in the NFL conspired to make the Bucs' playoff journey as comfortable as possible -- A home game, guys? A bye weekend? -- you might have expected more. You might have expected a statement. If you got one, it was this: "Hey, Brad. Get well."
Coming into the weekend, the trail through the playoffs looked something like a barefoot march with Admiral Byrd to the Arctic. A home game, then a trip to Green Bay, then a trip to Philadelphia. It was a chilling prospect.
Instead, the Bucs have a week off, then play Green Bay, New York or San Francisco at home, then have to win one road game -- yes, probably in Philly -- before the Super Bowl.
Given the difference in the itineraries, this may be the best chance the Bucs have had to make noise since 1999. If Johnson returns, and if he's as sharp as he's been most of the season, that's true.
Without him? Did you see the game against the Steelers? The Bears? Without Brad, this is what the Bucs offense is, and it doesn't matter if the playoffs are held on Gruden's front lawn.
Were you impressed with what you saw? Was Bill Parcells, that longtime employee of the Bucs? Perhaps you heard. The Bucs now say they have Parcells, that coach they never met, under contract. Today, expect Parcells to say he'll report for work. Tuesday, expect the Bucs to respond by having Parcells return kickoffs.
Talk about a duel of titans. Rob Johnson vs. Henry Burris. Happy Feet vs. Happy Hank.
Here's what you need to know about Rob. Second quarter, second and 20, and Gruden runs a pitchout to Michael Pittman. The next play, third and 12, he runs it again.
It's sad, because there was much talk before the season about the deep, experienced corps of quarterbacks the Bucs had. These days, the best argument for Rob Johnson is Shaun King, and the best argument for King is Rob Johnson, and together, they're an excellent argument to go with John Lynch and run the single wing.
Let me get this straight. Brad Johnson bought TVs for all of his offensive teammates? Considering what he means to his team, the other guys should have bought him a TV, and they should have built him a house around it. One with hot- and cold-running chiropractors.
The question lingers: What chance do the Bucs have in the playoffs? The answer is in Brad's back. It is apparent to most, including Gruden, how limited his options are with his backup quarterbacks.
Without Brad, the offense is out of control. It is a skittering, directionless blur, fighting its way uphill for every yard. A touchdown seems like too much to ask. Without Brad, the defense is under pressure. It was great against the Bears, but it's asking a lot for a defense not only to shut out the opponent, but hey, could it possibly return its interceptions a bit farther?
There is a difference in finally winning in the cold and being hot. The Bucs have to play much, much better. Either Brad's back gets better soon, or the Bucs will wind up on theirs.