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Goal No. 1: Alienate the QB. Check

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By GARY SHELTON, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published March 4, 2003

What he does, above all else, is look for things out of place.

He searches. He analyzes. He dissects.

Of all the parts of his job, this is the one he does the best. He sizes up situations. He looks through disguised coverages, past dangerous opponents, around troubled situations. If something is not quite right, he sees it.

Why on earth, then, would the Bucs try to sneak a million-and-a-half dollars past Brad Johnson?

Is this how a team repeats as Super Bowl champion? By ticking off its starting quarterback? By dealing underhanded with the quarterback who got it over the top?

This is a bad start, people. It is only March and already players have a fresh new reason to suspect the front office. Johnson is miffed and it isn't merely because Rob Johnson won't be around to help make him look good.

Frankly, Brad should be having the time of his life right about now. He is a champion, a Pro Bowl player, a team MVP. He should be up in Mayberry, hanging out at the malt shop, buying shakes for the entire house. The town loves him, finally. The team follows him, unfailingly.

Not only that, but a Super Bowl ring is on its way.

But, um, Brad? Maybe you should count the stones, okay?

This is silly. The restructuring of an NFL player's contract should be simple business, really. Let's face it, no one is asking the player to save the whales.

Team: Hey, champ. Can you do us a favor? How about taking all of your money now instead of in paychecks?

Agent: I don't know. It's kind of heavy. But okay.

Team: Grand. By the way, you don't mind if we call it a bonus instead of a salary, do you?

Agent: Wink, wink.

Team: Wink, wink.

Simple as that, it's done. The Bucs should have been delighted to hand Brad a huge hunk of money. After all, Johnson is the Bucs quarterback who, unlike Doug Williams and Steve Young and Trent Dilfer, didn't go somewhere else to get his title.

Furthermore, Brad should have been delighted, too. That way the Bucs could rush out to sign a few offensive lineman who might keep his ribs the number of pieces originally intended.

This time, though, it went haywire.

Oh, blame Johnson and agent Phil Williams for some of it, if you wish. When the Bucs approached, Williams did what agents do. He started talking about beefing up the contract.

Williams says Johnson is in the bottom half of NFL quarterbacks when it comes to pay, and after a season in which the 34-year-old out of Florida State outdueled Michael Vick, Brett Favre, Donovan McNabb and Rich Gannon in their head-to-head meetings, it's hardly a surprise he brought it up.

At any rate, when the Bucs' offer came across the fax machine, the team had deleted a bonus clause -- $1.5-million of guaranteed money -- in 2004. Williams said the removal had not been discussed. He accuses the Bucs of dirty pool.

What? Did the Bucs think Brad wouldn't notice? And when he did notice, did they think he'd just say "Shazam! You sure fooled me."

These are serious allegations, and frankly it would be nice to see the Bucs, who remain silent, take them seriously. Other agents, other players, are watching. The last thing the Bucs need is a reputation as an organization that will pull a fast one on players who have bled for it.

On the other hand, Williams admits that when he brought up the omission to the Bucs, they were ready to re-insert it.

So why didn't things end there? If you buy even the slightest possibility that this was a mistake, this seems like a particularly long, particularly loud howl. You wonder: Does this smell like an agent intent on renegotiation rather than restructuring?

It would be nice to think it was merely a mistake, as the team told Williams. Who knows? Maybe the Bucs borrowed a fax machine from the Lightning. Maybe Jon Gruden was drawing plays on the back of that particular page and it was filed away incorrectly. Maybe the Bucs thought this was a proposal instead of a final contract.

Know this, though. As physically tough as Johnson is, he can be a sensitive galoot. At times, you get the feeling he never has felt quite loved, quite comfortable wherever he has been.

Maybe there is a reason for him to be a little insecure. There was a time Johnson was playing lights out for the Vikings and the team brought in Randall Cunningham, just to back him up. Johnson gets hurt, Cunningham has a great year, and oops, Brad is gone.

Then he went to Washington and the team brought in Jeff George, just to back him up. Owner Dan Snyder decides he likes George and oops, Brad is gone.

If you are Brad, it's easy to ask: Does this omission mean the team isn't guaranteeing you anything -- money or position -- past the coming season?

If I'm Rich McKay, if I'm Jon Gruden, I'm on the phone to Johnson today. As Ricky used to tell Lucy, there is some splainin' to do.

Eventually, those guys are going to put the ball back into Brad's hands and the offense back upon his back. Eventually, they're going try to ride him toward the same sort of ending as this season. They'll share dreams, goals, vision.

It would be nice if they shared a little trust.

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