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Stop! Don't hit those panic buttons yet

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By GARY SHELTON

© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 10, 2001


IRVING, Texas -- Hello. HELLO! Can you hear me up there? Whatever you do, I want you to remain calm. And please come down from the bridge.

Look, it isn't that bad. It isn't that important. Relax. Move back from the ledge. Let's talk about this.

Whatever you do, please do NOT jump.

What's that? Yeah, I heard. The Bucs scored only 10 points. Against Dallas. What's that? You say Dallas is the Louisiana-Monroe of the NFL? That's funny, sir. Now, please, come down. The world needs a sense of humor like yours.

Look, I'm not going to lie to you. It was ugly, and a lot of fans are upset about it. For most of the game the Bucs looked as though they were trying to get to the Peach Bowl, not the Super Bowl. If the Cowboys are on target for four victories this season like everyone figures, the Bucs must be looking six square in the face. You think you're upset, sir? Try to imagine how Ryan Leaf feels; he couldn't make either of these teams.

Still, sir, there is reason to hope for a better day. Honest. There is reason to come down and force yourself to watch again.

It's called Brad Johnson.

Wait, sir. WAIT. Don't get so close to the edge. Whew. You scared me for a minute. Yeah, I realize that one touchdown isn't going to provide enough hope to go around. I realize it can get frustrating when Johnson keeps throwing short of the first-down sticks on third down. I realize Philadelphia is coming to town next week. I realize you want to panic now and avoid the rush.

Still, we learned something about Brad Johnson.

Hang on, sir. Where else do you have to go? That's a joke, sir. Sir? Sir?

Remember the third quarter? It was getting late, things were looking bad, and I'm sure your teeth were fully gnashed. There were 19 minutes left to play, the Cowboys led 6-3, and you'd swear the Bucs thought it was colder than 40 degrees in Dallas. On the sideline, Jerry Jones was grinning, even though that may have been the surgery. It's tough to tell.

Which is when Johnson turned into the kind of quarterback the Bucs had paid to see.

Oh, he had been accurate enough during the first half. He hit his first nine passes, dinking and dunking safely under Dallas' soft zone, throwing a lot of completions that caused little damage.

This was different. This was a quarterback running out of time on an offense that seemed to be running out of patience. Then Johnson stepped into the huddle, with that lopsided grin, and everyone seemed to calm down.

"He was cool," is the way receiver Keyshawn Johnson put it. "It was like there was no problem. He didn't panic. He was calm."

That's a bigger deal than it sounds. Professional players feel the pressure mount, too. They tend to talk faster, louder and show stress, which spreads to the rest of the team and coaches, until the offense gets more conservative.

Brad Johnson was no more excited than if he was stopping for gas. Next thing you know, the Bucs were moving downfield. Johnson kept getting hit, but it didn't seem to matter.

Then, on third and 13, the play of the game, a win or a loss possibly in the balance, Johnson threw his best pass of the day. He was hit by two rushers, but threw a deep out on a line to Jacquez Green for 25 yards and a first down. In all, he hit 5 of 6 passes on the drive, setting up his 1-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter for the winning points.

Look, the guy isn't the smoothest quarterback. He doesn't have the best gun. But in that one drive, you learned something about the guy. He doesn't ruffle. He is tougher than you think, and he is as competitive as you want. "I'm not here for statistics," he said. "I'm not here for a pat on the back. I'm here because I want to win."

What's that? Yeah, I know it's malarkey that the Bucs couldn't run better. This was the same Dallas team they ran for 250 yards against last season, and they averaged 2.2 yards per rush on Sunday. Yes, the Cowboys wanted to take the run away. But they didn't do anything special to make it happen. The offensive line needs to play better. The team needs to finish off drives. It needs to take more chances. For instance, the Bucs ran 18 plays from inside the Cowboys 35. It hasn't taken a shot into the end zone yet.

I feel your pain, sir. You expected more from the Bucs. You expected a team that looked like it could flex its muscles with everyone else in the league.

This one didn't. It looked slow, ugly, out of synch. It looked almost as bad as Dallas, which will be almost as bad as anyone. It looked as if it were telling you this season is going to have a lot of games like this, games that will twist your stomach for four quarters.

"We'll have 12 games that may come down to the final drive," Johnson said.

Still, the Bucs won. Isn't that something?

So come down from the bridge. It's way too soon to jump. Give them another game or two, and you'll have plenty of company. Who knows? Maybe an assistant coach will join you, and instead of jumping, you can push.

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