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Super Bowl XXXVII

For Brad, the best days are still ahead

By JOHN ROMANO, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 23, 2003

SAN DIEGO -- Brad Johnson sits in front of dozens of notepads and misperceptions. A handful of TV cameras and wrong assumptions.

There are people asking questions, but nobody is listening to the answers. They make note of his words, but not his intent.

He's supposed to be the simple story. The country boy who survived. The nice guy who lucked into the right situation just in time.

How wonderful that, while passing through the NFL, Johnson finally had a chance to stop by the Super Bowl. As if he were the accidental tourist.

Except this is not the culmination of a career.

As far as Johnson is concerned, this is the start.

He is too humble to say this directly, but too proud to let it pass. So Johnson, instead, circles around a topic and hopes you can spot the point.

Go ahead, ask about the new wave of young, mobile quarterbacks and how they are taking over the NFL. Somehow, he will steer the conversation to Terry Bradshaw and Troy Aikman, a couple of dropback passers, like himself, who won seven Super Bowls between them.

Maybe you should seek his impressions of what makes a great quarterback. He might casually suggest winning percentage, completion percentage and passer ratings are good guides. Statistics, by the way, in which he excels.

He is confident without being brash. He has tremendous pride, yet he is not egotistical. Mostly he is aware he is seen as a serviceable caretaker and not an abundantly talented quarterback.

It gnaws at Johnson, but he works at not letting it show.

"A lot of people say things, a lot of people write things, a lot of people think things, but what was important, when it was all said and done, was me," Johnson said. "How I feel and how I prepare. I love playing this game and I want to make it as long a career as I can.

The perception of Johnson is not necessarily wrong, just incomplete.

He does not have a powerful arm, but is incredibly accurate. He is not nimble in the pocket, but reads defenses quickly enough that scrambling is not necessary. He is not a big talker but has the confidence of teammates.

"There's a lot more skills to being a quarterback," Johnson said, "than just passing the ball."

Do not feel badly if you were slow to recognize this. Bobby Bowden and most NFL coaches and executives were, too.

Johnson, after all, sat the bench as a senior at Florida State. He saw 13 quarterbacks picked ahead of him in the 1992 draft, including trivia-style names like Bucky Richardson, Chris Hakel and Ricky Jones. He had to ask to play for London in the World League and it took him three years in the NFL before he threw a pass in the regular season.

"I'm a late bloomer," Johnson said.

In a lot of ways, his career is similar to Oakland's Rich Gannon. And it's a comparison with which he seems entirely comfortable.

Not because of their early career struggles, although they are similar. Not because they both found success when paired with Jon Gruden, although that has been a big factor for both.

What Johnson sees in Gannon is not a similar past, but a hopeful future.

Gannon, at 37, was named the league's Most Valuable Player last month. The older he gets, the more acclaim follows him.

Gannon, by the way, was 33 when he came to Oakland. Johnson was 33 when he came to Tampa Bay last season.

"I've gone through my struggles. Not having a name, no one knowing what kind of quarterback I am, being tall, slow, having a weak arm. I've heard it all," Johnson said. "I think the most important thing between Rich and I is very, very thick skin and very cold as far as letting outside distractions get in the way of what we're trying to accomplish."

The world seems to believe Johnson finally caught a break by landing in Tampa Bay. You would never get him to say it, but Johnson believes the Bucs caught a break when he showed up.

He's had success before, you know. He took the Vikings to the playoffs in 1996 and the Redskins in '99. He even made the Pro Bowl a few years back.

But, for some reason, he's never had staying power. He was benched in favor of Casey Weldon at Florida State. For Randall Cunningham in Minnesota. For Jeff George in Washington.

Sometimes, injuries were the problem. Other times, it was perception.

"People always look for the big arm, the quick feet. They want it all, they want the flash," Bucs general manager Rich McKay said. "So when you have a quarterback who doesn't fit that image, at the first sign of things going wrong, they want to go out and get a new quarterback.

"The big thing with Brad and Gannon is that they've both found the right fit. The right team, the right coach, the right offense."

There is no reason to believe Johnson hasn't found a permanent home with the Bucs. He may not have been Gruden's favorite before the season, but now is so far ahead of Rob Johnson and Shaun King that neither may return.

He is tough and committed and not likely to rest on these newly-found laurels. Johnson is focused on the Super Bowl, but is cognizant of the future. And, as far as he can tell, the best is yet to come.

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