THE MOVE: This time Tampa Bay tries free agency, hoping Brad Johnson can stabilize the QB position.
By RICK STROUD
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 6, 2001
TAMPA -- Year after year, the Bucs have watched their castoffs at quarterback survive and then thrive.
It seems no one kicked overboard ever failed to make a big splash.
Four led their new teams to Super Bowls, and three became champions.
So you can't blame the Bucs for wanting to see what all the fuss is about.
Using a formula they perfected, the Bucs on Monday signed Washington Redskins free-agent quarterback Brad Johnson.
And if past is prologue, a championship can't be far behind.
Johnson, 32, agreed to a five-year, $28-million contract, choosing the Bucs and coach Tony Dungy over the reigning Super Bowl champion Ravens and coach Brian Billick, his offensive coordinator in Minnesota.
The Bucs plan to immediately install Johnson as the starter ahead of Shaun King, a 24-year-old who was inconsistent but managed to lead the Bucs to a 15-9 record as a starter in two pro seasons.
The Bucs beat three other teams -- Baltimore, Kansas City and Cincinnati -- that were in hot pursuit of Johnson, the most coveted free-agent quarterback when the signing period began Monday.
The acquisition of Johnson makes the Bucs, who have scored one touchdown in three playoff losses the past four seasons, a favorite to contend for the Super Bowl.
"He is one tough hombre," Bucs defensive tackle Warren Sapp said. "I talked to him (Johnson) tonight, and I told him, 'Let's go win a championship."
Tampa Bay did an effective job of masking its intentions to supplant King as the starter and even surprised Johnson with its midnight phone call Friday to reveal its interest.
Almost from the start, Johnson's choice was between the Bucs and Ravens. But he was turned off by Baltimore's initial four-year, $22-million offer that also was tendered to Kansas City's Elvis Grbac.
In the end, the Bucs convinced Johnson he would provide them with the starting quarterback that would immediately make them a Super Bowl favorite.
"I wish it was done on the first day of free agency, obviously," Johnson told the Web site sportsillustrated.cnn.com Monday. "A lot of things were said and assumed, but I actually never thought before free agency began about Tampa Bay. I didn't think they would be in the picture, but they called that first day, and it put a smile on my face.
"The more serious it got, I got real excited. I feel it's the best place for me for the next four or five years. It's the place I wanted to go, and I always felt I would be accepted with open arms there."
King, who has been working out six days a week in New Orleans, spoke to Dungy on Monday and was disappointed about Johnson's signing. But he vowed to fight to regain his job in training camp.
"I think you have to look it this way: Those things you simply can't control," King said. "Would I be happy if they had no new quarterback or many new quarterbacks? I don't know. But I wouldn't let it get to me. All I can do is get better and come out and (play well) in training camp and see who wins the job."
Several Bucs players suggested Monday that King actually will benefit from Johnson's arrival.
"He had the weight of the team on his shoulders as a young pup," receiver Keyshawn Johnson said. "It was a pressure cooker. And for him, it's probably a better thing to sit back and see what's going on without having it all on him."
Johnson is the second quarterback to be added to the roster in four days. Friday, the Bucs claimed San Diego Chargers bad-boy Ryan Leaf off waivers. But Leaf's career in Tampa Bay could be made even more brief by Monday's developments.
The Bucs have left the decision up to Leaf whether he wants to join the team or be released. If he reports to Tampa Bay, the team will slot him as its No. 3 quarterback, behind Johnson and King.
The Bucs plan to trade backup Eric Zeier in the next 24 hours, most likely to the Atlanta Falcons.
Johnson is the third starting quarterback for the Bucs in as many seasons, to go with three offensive coordinators.
After the '99 season, the Bucs let the contract of Trent Dilfer expire, opting to go with unproven, inexperienced King. Dilfer signed with Baltimore and led the Ravens to a Super Bowl XXV victory over the Giants at Raymond James Stadium.
Johnson completes a series of drastic moves by Dungy to improve the offense. After the season, Dungy fired offensive coordinator Les Steckel, who was criticized for not getting Keyshawn Johnson more involved in the attack, and promoted former quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen to the job.
"We think (Johnson) is a high-caliber person and a great player," Dungy said. "He was very interested in coming to the Bucs, and that helped to make this happen."
It's likely Johnson eventually could have received a better deal in Baltimore. But the Bucs took advantage of Johnson living in Tallahassee and having played at Florida State to make Tampa Bay more attractive. Talks heated up Sunday night, and Dungy telephoned Johnson on Monday to tell him that the deal was close. Bucs safety John Lynch, who was in San Diego preparing to play in his celebrity golf tournament, rose at 6 a.m. PST to make a recruiting call to Johnson.
Johnson's contract includes a $6.5-million signing bonus and will pay him $12.8-million in the first two years.
The deal also is one that will fit easily under the Bucs' salary cap. Johnson will earn a base salary of $750,000 in 2001. The second year provides for a base salary of $3.5-million and a $2-million roster bonus due in March.
Agent Phil Williams said escalator clauses in the third and fourth years could add $2-million to the package.
"Obviously, Tampa Bay has been a winner, but I think there's another level that they want to get to," Johnson said. "For me it was the chance to put my stamp on it and win a Super Bowl down there, which is something that's never been done there before. I'm going to be playing with a core group of players that I've played against, and in some cases with, for years. And obviously playing close to my home is important, as well as playing for Tony Dungy, who I have a good relationship with."
Since the end of the season, Dungy and the Bucs indicated that King had a firm hold on his starting job. But privately, they thought King was plagued by inconsistency in his first full season as a starter, floundering in the first two months before a late rally earned the Bucs their third playoff appearance in four years.
But the Bucs (10-6) blew a chance to clinch a second straight NFC Central title, a first-round bye and the right to host a divisional playoff game by losing in overtime to Green Bay in the final regular-season game. They were eliminated in a lackluster wild-card loss at Philadelphia in which King failed to lead the Bucs to the end zone and turned in one of his worst performances of the season.
"One thing Tony likes is consistency," Christensen said. "We've lacked that a little bit at the quarterback position. No matter whether (Johnson) plays great or not, he feels he will conduct himself on the field an in every way like he thinks a quarterback of your team should. He's also going to be great in the locker room."