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The journeyman from FSU leads the way to victory

For Brad Johnson, a rough start culminates in the crowning moment of his career.

By ANTONYA ENGLISH, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 27, 2003


SAN DIEGO -- Maybe now Brad Johnson will get a little credit where credit is due.

Maybe now, the critics will stop talking about what he doesn't have: speed, mobility, a strong enough arm.

Maybe now they'll start talking about what he does have: a Super Bowl ring.

The All-American high school quarterback from Black Mountain, N.C., is now a Super Bowl champion after leading Tampa Bay to a 48-21 victory over the Oakland Raiders in Super Bowl XXXVII Sunday at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego.

"It's a great feeling to be able to say we're the best in the world," Johnson said. "It doesn't last very long, but for one moment, it's incredible."

If you were writing a fairy tale, Johnson's first possession in Sunday's Super Bowl probably wouldn't have made the final edit. His recovery and subsequent performance most definitely would.

What culminated in the crowning moment of his career began with a shaky start. On the third play of the game (his second pass), Johnson's throw intended for Keenan McCardell was intercepted by Charles Woodson and returned 12 yards to the Buccaneers' 36-yard line.

The Raiders eventually scored on a 40-yard field goal by Sebastian Janikowski and took a 3-0 lead.

Ironically, it was similar situations in recent games that kept Johnson calm Sunday.

"We didn't panic," he said. "We didn't get caught up in one play. I had an interception in the first drive against San Francisco (the second round playoff game) and on the second drive in Philadelphia (the NFC championship game). That was a great lesson for me, to show that you have to stay the course and you just don't panic."

So he didn't, ultimately finishing the game 18-of-34 for 215 yards and two touchdowns. Thanks to stellar play from the offensive line, Johnson wasn't sacked once. He gave credit to the linemen, and they reciprocated.

"Unbelievable," is how center Jeff Christy described Johnson's performance. "Everything that people say about him -- that he shouldn't be here, that he can't do this and he can't do that. But all Brad does is make plays. Say what you want about him, but that guy makes plays."

Although he didn't have the best start, Johnson made the best of the situation. At one point he was 4-of-14, but went 6-of-10 down the stretch heading into halftime. He was 10-of-24 for 113 yards and one touchdown in the first half, but the Bucs led 20-3.

"We had some first-quarter struggles," Johnson said. "There were some drops, and I just couldn't get in the right rhythm. "But we did a great job of managing the clock and scoring at the end of the half (a 5-yard touchdown pass to McCardell with 30 seconds left), and that was key for us."

So too was the Bucs' opening drive of the second half -- 14 plays and 89 yards that ate 9: 30 off the clock. The drive included receptions of 11 and 33 yards by Joe Jurevicius, which Johnson credited for the drive's success.

"To open the half and have that long drive, that was just huge," Johnson said. "That doesn't happen much in football. Joe made some big catches, and we really needed points and rhythm at that time, and he really came through."

Jurevicius said Johnson should finally get some positive recognition.

"Brad was our leader all season, and I think you saw that tonight," he said. "It was the biggest game of Brad's life, and he put a lot of yards up and made a lot of plays for us. He is the number one reason why we are the Super Bowl champs."

The spotlight all week had been on Johnson's opponent, league MVP Rich Gannon, and the Raiders' future Hall of Fame receivers Jerry Rice and Tim Brown. It was Tampa Bay's NFL-best defense against the league's best offense in Oakland.

Johnson was a sidebar, the journeyman from Florida State who had endured 11 seasons and stints in Washington and Minnesota before coming to Tampa Bay.

"I've heard it all," Johnson said. "Too slow, not enough arm. I'm used to that. . . . My numbers and winning percentage and all that in the regular season is pretty high, but to do something special, you have to win a Super Bowl."

He's won a Super Bowl. Maybe now he'll get some credit.

"I can't say enough about Brad," receiver Keyshawn Johnson said. "He didn't get enough credit all year, but he led us to victory tonight."

As the clock ticked off the final seconds of the game, Johnson held his toddler son Max on his right hip, gave him a kiss on the cheek, then took his Super Bowl championship hat and placed it on his head. Max removed the hat and handed it back to his father. Today, they'll complete the story with a trip to Disneyland. A fitting ending to a fairy-tale season.

"I've seen myself here before," Johnson said as he sat atop a podium after the game. "I've practiced it a million times, seen it, visualized it. And I thought hopefully it would come through."

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