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Not the best, but the best option

By HUBERT MIZELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 6, 2001


It won't be like Kurt Warner, Daunte Culpepper, Peyton Manning or Brett Favre coming to the Bucs, but the high accuracy and low risk of Brad Johnson could be a victorious formula for a Bucs offense that, over a 25-season NFL haul, has seldom been adequate and never ample.

Tony Dungy and Rich McKay say they aren't giving up on Shaun King, but concerns obviously festered about No. 10's readiness to optimally quarterback Super Bowl pursuits.

We're talking now.

Bottom line is, Tampa Bay's coach and general manager see Johnson as a more dependable vehicle for immediate Lombardi Trophy chasings -- especially the next two, three or four seasons, before a renowned Bucs defense can further age and has more chance to slide from its Warren Sapp-John Lynch-Derrick Brooks elegance.

Suddenly, it seems, there was a burst of Bucs urgency, a week after Tampa Bay's coach told me, "I don't feel the need to go for a $4-million quarterback."

So now the Bucs take on a $5.6-million-a-season ride with Johnson. Did it all evolve that quickly, or was Tony spewing a little smoke?

"That's what I really thought when we talked," Dungy said Monday. "Like most everybody, I figured Brad would go to Baltimore. It wasn't until the weekend that we thought he might not sign with the Ravens and had interest in Tampa Bay.

"I'm sure he could've gotten more money elsewhere. It's much like with (guard) Randall McDaniel, who was willing to accept less because of being personally interested in the Bucs."

Always, from the John McKay '70s to the Dungy '90s and beyond, coaches have offered a Band-Aid approach to Bucs offense, never a cure. Possibilities improve with a Johnson-and-Johnson linking -- that's Brad throwing to Keyshawn.

BJ, the old FSU backup, won't be a Hall of Famer, his name shouted in glory sentences with Dan Marino, Joe Montana, John Elway, Steve Young and Favre. But if for the Bucs he can approach being a Phil Simms, that'll do.

Brad's characteristic Sunday fruits are a cozy fit for Dungy's non-spicy offense. He is a brainy, efficient pro with a willingness to deeply prepare and nurture a Warrick Dunn-Mike Alstott ground act, mixing handoffs with flair passes and the occasional delivery of an under-control football to downfield targets.

KJ is ravenous for that.

Dungy was in Minnesota, coaching the Vikings defense, when Brad hit the NFL in 1994. "We got there the same year," said the Bucs boss. Tony knows well the 32-year-old North Carolinian's personality, dedication and leadership traits.

Mysteries are at a minimum.

"I saw Brad at work almost every day," Dungy said. "He quarterbacked the scout team, going against my defense. Brad was perfect at giving you a great picture of our upcoming opponent. He was tough, dedicated and never complained.

"Oh, I think he has an athlete's ego, a lot of pride, but Brad has proved good at adjustments. Moving from Florida State to the Vikings, earning his chance to start there and doing well, then going to Washington, learning the Redskins system and doing good things. He can adapt. A lot of talent. A true professional."

Unquestionably, for King it's a painful backward push. Dungy has defended Shaun as though the quarterback was a son, but the Johnson move was a "chance to better ourselves in a hurry," the coach said. "A month ago, I didn't think this was possible."

King won't like reverting to backup, but with the move comes time to enhance his stock, both mental and physical. To sharpen his skills.

Shaun can show, with hard work and solid improvement, that his time is yet to come rather than being in the past as he approaches birthday 24. Johnson has a history of injuries, so if Shaun achieves a high state of readiness, his shots at playing again might not be far down the NFL path.

Shaun's story has many charming episodes: the homegrown St. Petersburg kid who fueled a Tulane University rebound from football obscurity before living out a higher dream; getting drafted by the Bucs, a franchise the former Gibbs High hero adored through Tampa Bay seasons of ultimate NFL squalor.

But now, after quarterbacking the Bucs in an NFC Championship Game followed by an erratic 2000 season, King will become No. 2, with free agent Johnson being paid $28-million to squeeze more yardage and touchdowns from KJ, Mike and Warrick.

Everything considered, the well-monied stab at Johnson seems splendid. Timely. Easy to embraced by most everybody involved, except maybe King.

There are other weighty offensive challenges, quite connected even to an equation that includes BJ, KJ, Warrick and Mike.

McKay and Dungy must apply similar drive to upgrade offensive tackles. Last season's protection for King was inadequate. Johnson is less of a QB gamble, but none of this works if the pitcher spends too much time on his back.

Since early '77, it has been off-season Tampa Bay sport for us outsiders to wonder and imagine what could improve an offense that was constantly underachieving. Brad Johnson could be the morsel that makes it a real NFL meal, stemming a generation of hunger.

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