Johnson Battered, But Came Close To Stealing Win
The Buccaneers have long been a bit like Linus on Halloween. The only difference is each fall the Bucs wait not for the Great Pumpkin, but for an offense to appear. As it has been for poor Linus, the wait is one of enduring and optimistic hope. And it's that time again. Sunday's season opener looked suspiciously familiar. Untimely mistakes, costly penalties, a running game never established - and ultimately, an offense last seen going against the current. New Orleans 26, Tampa Bay 20. ``There were mistakes in all phases of the game that hurt us,'' quarterback Brad Johnson said. ``But you don't start from scratch. The players are there. The system is there. We're too good not to count on each other. You can't point fingers. It's too long a season and we have too many good players involved in this situation.''

Johnson took the high road. He'd already taken too many low blows. What more can a quarterback do? For a guy who is supposed to be as mobile as an oak tree, Johnson faced a New Orleans rush that came at him like metal to a magnet, yet recorded three sacks. ``That's just a rep,'' Johnson said. ``I'm not going to beat too many guys in a 40-yard dash, but I think my pocket presence is pretty strong. I probably threw the ball away 15-20 times today. I probably set a record in the NFL for that. You have to give credit to New Orleans.''

Bucs center Steve Christy said he'd swear the Saints were rushing 20 at times. Johnson would concur. Everybody agreed a quarterback needs more time. It just didn't happen enough. When there was time, there was results. Johnson hooked up for a 38- yard strike to Keyshawn Johnson. Keenan McCardell caught six passes for 63 yards, including a 16-yarder. Too often, however, there wasn't the time. Johnson was pressured, pounded and plagued. ``We never really got a chance to get into any kind of rhythm with our running game or our passing game,'' Johnson said. ``Seems like we were always in a third-and-10, and sometimes a first-and-20 situation. We never got into rhythm in the first half. I felt we protected a little bit better in the second half and made some plays in the passing game. But we were always having to come from behind.''

They almost made it happen. With two minutes left and with no timeouts, Johnson drove the Bucs 51 yards in 10 plays for a 40-yard Martin Gramatica field goal that forced overtime as time expired. m The Bucs came close to stealing a game they had no right to win, and if they had, Johnson's fingerprints would have been all over it. If there was a calmer head than Johnson's in Buccaneer colors Sunday, it was the one made of fabric and being worn by the sideline mascot. ``He hung in there in some difficult situations,'' Bucs coach Jon Gruden said.

After Rob Johnson was brought in during the off-season to compete at quarterback, the easy suggestion was the position is a job up for grabs. But quarterback was not one of Sunday's problems. ``I thought he did what he could do,'' receiver Keyshawn Johnson said. ``I mean, he usually gets a little more time. We need to shore up some things and give him a little more protection.''

So this time the numbers lie. Statistics suggest the Bucs quarterback spent the better part of Sunday getting battered with an ugly stick. He threw 52 times, completing 28 for 278 yards. The Bucs were an anemic seven for 19 on third-down conversions. Twelve of the Bucs' first 22 first-half offensive plays went for zero yards or a loss. The running game finished with 72 yards. And somehow from all that, there's still hope.

Mick Elliott The Tampa Tribune September 2004