Brad Leads Band Of Bucs, Has Eye Patch To Prove It
Joey Johnston, The Tampa Tribune, published 13 January 2003

It was a broken play. And for a brief moment Sunday afternoon, it looked like a broken dream. Brad Johnson, who had scrambled from the pocket, was down at the San Francisco 9-yard line. He wasn't getting up. A crowd of players gathered around. The fans at Raymond James Stadium, who had been whipped into a flag-waving frenzy, were hushed into disbelieving attention early in the third quarter.

As it turned out, nothing serious. Johnson had been gashed above the right eye by San Francisco linebacker Derek Smith, a cut that brought blood and required at least six stitches. Johnson, the loyal soldier, said he stayed prone longer than normal so his backup could get more practice passes. But as he was carted to the locker room, Johnson decided to erase all the worry. He raised his left arm. He pumped it triumphantly. The fans roared.

Things were fine on the scoreboard (the Bucs were closing out a 31-6 win against the 49ers in an NFC divisional playoff game) and with their quarterback (Johnson returned a few minutes later, almost looking like an authentic Buccaneer, with a patch just above his eye). It was his day. Everyone already knew it was his team. ``You put a lot of pressure on yourself as a player and a quarterback because you know this is when you can make something special happen,'' Johnson said. ``You don't care how it looks. You just want to win. You just want to advance. [Advancing] in the playoffs is the biggest reason why I came down here to play. You don't get many opportunities like this.''

Something special is happening here. For the first time in franchise history, the Bucs have a 13th victory. For the third time, the Bucs are in the NFC Championship Game. But perhaps for the only time since they've gotten this far, the Bucs might actually score some touchdowns at the title game. They won't just kick a field goal and hope the defense can deliver a Super Bowl. Not this time. ``All I'm looking for is one more point than Philadelphia next week,'' Johnson said. ``I don't care if it's 3-2 or 31-30.''

Prediction: Don't worry. It won't be 3-2. Johnson, playing for the first time since injuring his back at Detroit on Dec. 15, was as sharp as needed. The numbers might look pedestrian - 15 of 31 for 196 yards and two touchdowns - but it's about more than numbers. It's about correct decisions. It's about quick looks. It's about experience. Johnson delivered a pinpoint 20-yard touchdown pass to Joe Jurevicius, who tapped both feet down in the left corner, on third- and-seven. ``On a scale of 1 to 10, that [throw] was a 100,'' Jurevicius said.

Later, with second-and-six at the San Francisco 12, Johnson first looked to Mike Alstott in the flat. He glanced at Keyshawn Johnson over the middle. Then he found tight end Rickey Dudley in the end zone. ``And all the time, the defensive end is breathing down Brad's neck,'' Bucs general manager Rich McKay said. ``The typical Brad play. He sees it. He sees it in a hurry. He puts the ball in the right place.''

The best part is this: After some training-camp questions about whether Johnson's style would fit Coach Jon Gruden's system, here's a team and quarterback working in the same direction. Upfield. Moving the chains. During the flurry that produced a 21-6 lead for Tampa Bay, the Johnson-led offense connected on eight consecutive third-down conversions. ``This offense isn't the same offense you saw a month ago,'' Bucs defensive back Dwight Smith said. ``It's not the same as you saw two months ago. It keeps getting better and better. That's because of Brad. He's our leader.''

Everybody says that. Even the defenders. ``There's a respect level,'' Bucs wide receiver Keenan McCardell said. ``Brad has been there, done that.''

But here's one thing he hasn't done. In 11 NFL seasons, he never has taken his team to a conference championship game. Johnson was hurt in 1998, so it was Randall Cunningham leading the Minnesota Vikings. And in '99, his Washington Redskins were beaten by the Bucs in the NFC semifinals. ``Hopefully, this validates what kind of quarterback he is in a lot of people's minds,'' Gruden said. ``He doesn't have to prove anything to me. He's a huge reason why we're here.''

And now that Johnson's healthy again, he's perhaps the biggest reason why there might be more than false hope as Tampa Bay again heads to Philadelphia.