Drive for perfection helps Bucs QB succeed wherever he goes.
By ROGER MILLS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published January 8, 2003
TAMPA -- Nobody knows.
Bucs quarterback Brad Johnson said no one can tell what's going on in his mind or his body or how hard he's worked or, for that matter, what his legacy will be.
But 11 seasons into a traveled NFL career, there are some absolutes.
He is a veteran enjoying a career renaissance that has landed his team in the divisional playoffs Sunday against the 49ers and landed his name among the league's elite play-callers.
Talk to his teammates and coaches and they'll tell you about the suitcase he carries around on game day, the rules he has for the meeting room, the weird things he says and facial expressions he has in the huddle. They'll describe a man with the mind of Mr. Spock and the passion of Capt. Kirk.
Mysterious, meticulous and mean.
"No one knows what you go through," Johnson said. "No one knows what I do in February. No one knows what I do in July. No one knows. My wife has a good idea. My best friend has a good idea. But no one knows. ... I remember those things because I'm always on edge. You never forget, you always remember."
And those who have passed in his wake likely will remember Johnson. They will remember that the suitcase contains a change of clothes and equipment for every quarter. They will remember how he won't eat in the meeting room or how he loses his mind if a teammate puts his feet up on the desk.
They'll recall how he seldom shows emotion and can be quite expressive when he does.
"Thank God I'm not his son. I can't imagine what my room would have to look like," receiver Joe Jurevicius said. "With Brad, everything has to be stacked perfectly. It's funny, you're not used to seeing things like that at a professional level. He's got shoes for every quarter, socks and wrist bands and towels and jerseys. It's pretty funny, if you ask me."
From his early years in Black Mountain, N.C., the anal-retentive approach has worked for Johnson. He has remained committed to order, detail and the pursuit of perfection through a two-sport (football and basketball) career at Owen High School and Florida State, NFL stops in Minnesota, Washington and Tampa Bay and with the World League's London Monarchs.
"When I shoot free throws in the offseason, if I make 10 in a row, I go home," Johnson said. "If I don't shoot 10 in a row, or miss three, I run three wind sprints. I will sit out there for hours and hours, to the very end. As stupid as this sounds, when I was a little kid I said I was going to hit 100 bull's-eyes (in darts) and 300 of those 50 marks in one day. Now, what kind of kid will do that at 8 years old? A very, very warped kid. I'm very, very warped."
Johnson, 34, claims his unusual approach to professional and private life keeps him grounded in a world of constant change. To him, no two games are the same, no two seasons, no two plays, no two teams. He preaches that the lessons learned while starting for the Vikings (in 1997 he threw for 3,036 yards and 20 TDs), are distinct from the ones learned while having a Pro Bowl season with the Redskins in 1999 (4,005 yards and 24 TDs).
In two seasons with the Bucs, Johnson has played for two coaches (Tony Dungy and Jon Gruden) and two offensive coordinators (Clyde Christensen and, in effect, Gruden). He has gone from throwing balls to Reidel Anthony, who's out of the league, and Jacquez Green, released twice in the past season, to Keenan McCardell and Joe Jurevicius. Change, he said, is inevitable.
"(Gruden's) made a lot of moves, moves we felt we had to do," Johnson said. "Jon's going to always make moves until he gets what he wants. Get used to it. It's always going to happen. It's going to keep guys on edge; you have to prove your worth."
On a rebuilt offense loaded with new weapons, Johnson has emerged as the clear leader. He played 13 games this season and went 10-3. In the three games Johnson didn't play, the Bucs scored one touchdown.
"It's not what you say, it's by making your play consistent, time and time again," Johnson said. "Hopefully, (they've bought into it). Hopefully, I've earned that respect. But at the same time you play for the next guy, you play for yourself. That is the key for every quarterback, and it is to raise the level of other guys' play. It doesn't mean he gets more catches or more touches or we score more points, but maybe we believe in each other a little bit more."
Center Jeff Christy, who played with Johnson in Minnesota, said Johnson is a different quarterback this season.
"Last year, there seemed to be, not turmoil, but uncertainty," Christy said. "We weren't really seeing the true Brad. I think this year, he has proven that if you give him the time, that he's going to make the right decisions.
"This year, we were able to play some games where that came to the forefront. The more confidence we gained in him, the more confidence he gained in us. You feed off of each other, that's when you start to get better and better."
One thing the team has noticed is that inside Johnson's collected soul, a competitive and fiery demon rages.
"He's a good guy, but he has a mean streak, no doubt," Jurevicius said. "If you challenge him, he's going to take it to you. He's not going to let you take it to him. He's very nasty at times; he's a bull.
"When he gets hit or blindsided, he pops right up and looks you in the face. On the very next play, he throws a touchdown. He's going to take your best shot, he's going to get up and then he's going to give you his best shot. That's what I admire about him."
Johnson, who has had hot dogs and other things thrown at him, admits there are times when it's necessary to express emotion and indignation. He confronted fans last season.
Christy said even a player with Johnson's self control has limits.
"We're normal people," Christy said. "I would like to see those fans sitting at their desk or whatever their job may be and someone yelling at them constantly telling them they s---, cussing them out and telling them about their mom, this and that. How would you react? At some point, you're going to feel your manhood is in question and you're going to react."
Gruden said it is Johnson's country-boy look that fools opposing players and fans.
"He's the kid who stands on the street corner and doesn't say much," Gruden said. "But if you mouth off to him too many times, he will knock your block off. That's who Brad is."
When Gruden first arrived in Tampa, he didn't know much about Johnson. He gushed about the potential of backup Shaun King and signed veteran Rob Johnson. Meanwhile, Brad Johnson continued his unwavering workout regimen and threw himself into Gruden's offense. Ten months later, the two are on the same page, and the offense is better for it.
"We're a work in progress," Johnson said. ". . .I think we can really grow. A lot of it has to do with me as far as just learning the plays. It's coming; it's coming."
Johnson said the success and patience of Raiders quarterback Rich Gannon, the 2002 NFL MVP whose career Gruden helped turn around, is inspiring.
"When you see Rich you feel, 'Yeah, maybe I can play a couple more years,"' Johnson said. "And the better you are with getting the ball out of your hands, learning the system, the more the success, the longer your career. That's what I'm saying. I'm excited when I come in to work. I'm ready to learn. "I know there are going to be bad days. I know there are going to be losses. I say this stupidly, but I hope to have 50 more interceptions because that means I'm going to have another 100 or more touchdowns. That's the way I look at it. People are going to read that wrong, but I don't care. It means we've had a longer career, won more ball games."
To Gruden, Johnson's obsession with detail explains who he is, and tells why he is where he is.
"Call it like it is," Gruden said. "He wasn't given the keys in Florida State, he wasn't a No. 1 draft choice, he played in the World League and this is his third team. But everywhere he's been, he's had success. He's worked his tail off to enjoy where he is now. In his mind now, he's confident he can get the job done. It's a pleasure to have that guy here."