All In The Details
He wouldn't last long. That was the consensus opinion of Bucs followers and insiders when Coach Jon Gruden first said Brad Johnson would be his starting quarterback this season. Johnson simply didn't fit the mold Gruden had cast for the engineer of his offense. He wasn't mobile enough; wasn't diverse enough; maybe wasn't tough enough.
A funny thing happened on the way to the bench. Johnson kept impressing Gruden, first with knowledge; then with his work ethic; finally, with his play on the field. As much as Gruden wanted to have Rob Johnson's or Shaun King's play-making ability as another dynamic in his offense, he couldn't bring himself to yank Johnson off the top of the depth chart. ``I was nervous about how he fit into the equation because he was a lot different than maybe some of the visions I had coming to Tampa, philosophy-wise,'' Gruden said. ``But the more I was around him, the more I learned that this guy loves football and that details mattered to him. And when I saw the ball spin out of his hand and the accuracy, I was excited about it. I learned quickly that this guy is a great pocket passer who can really throw the ball.''
Learning that was only half the battle. Accepting it was the other. Three weeks into the season, Gruden was still asking Johnson to run plays that were designed for quarterbacks such as Rich Gannon or Michael Vick. In time, Gruden adjusted his playbook. He didn't throw out the plays that called for Johnson to roll out or run a naked bootleg. He just buried them behind a bunch of plays that called for three-, five- and seven-step drops.
It didn't take long for Johnson to adjust, either. He worked overtime, learning Gruden's system, keeping Gruden at the office longer than even he wanted during two quarterback orientation sessions in February. By the time the first minicamp rolled around, Johnson knew the system well enough that he was able to put distance between himself and his two quarterback competitors. And by the middle of training camp, the Bucs' starting quarterback issue was dead. Brad Johnson was pulling away. In time, he would push the Bucs offense into a new realm.
On opening day, he was the offense's best player, the one who brought the Bucs back from a 20-10 deficit and forced overtime against the Saints by engineering two scoring drives in which he completed 11 of 18 passes for 108 yards. Weeks 2 through 5 were more of the same. Though he played behind an offensive line that was beat up and struggling and didn't have a running game to protect him, he produced a quarterback rating of 95 or better in two of those games and won all four.
He even kept the Bucs close the first time out against Philadelphia, despite taking a hit on the second play of the game that left him with a cracked rib. That rib injury cost Johnson a chance to play a week later against Carolina, but the Bucs pulled out the victory, winning the game on four Martin Gramatica field goals. A week later, Johnson was back behind center. But he didn't look the same. Somehow, he looked better. And he stayed that way.
During a critical five-game span that began with a Nov. 3 victory against Minnesota and ended with a Dec. 8 victory against Atlanta, Johnson completed 112 of 171 passes for 1,252 yards and 15 touchdowns. He was intercepted once and produced an eye-popping rating of 114.0 during that run, one in which the Bucs went 4-1 and regained first place in the NFC South Division. ``What happened was, the rest of our offense finally started to catch up to Brad,'' Gruden said. ``The running game finally came around; our offensive line play improved. We just got better.''
Johnson said neither he nor the offense would have gotten better without Gruden. ``He keeps talking, keeps teaching,'' Johnson said. ``He may go over one particular play a thousand times during the course of the season. You get tired of hearing it. You get tired of him constantly telling a back, `I need you to block here.' But somewhere along the line it all clicks. He builds you up and puts you into situations where you can make plays and that's all you can ask for.''
Johnson made plays this year. He made them in record numbers. When the regular season ended, he'd missed three games because of injury but still set team records for touchdown passes (22) and passer rating (92.9). He also had the lowest interception percentage in team history (1.3) and was the first Bucs quarterback to lead the NFC in passer rating. Not surprisingly, his season ended with a berth in the Pro Bowl.
It was the Super Bowl that Johnson was after, though, and if it weren't for him the Bucs might never have gotten there. After missing a month because of a bad back, he returned for the playoffs and sparkled again. In the divisional playoff game against San Francisco, Johnson sliced up the 49ers defense for 196 yards as the Bucs produced a franchise-record 329 total yards in a 31-6 victory. In the NFC Championship Game, Johnson led the Bucs to a 27-10 victory, completing 20 of 33 passes for 259 yards and a touchdown against the Eagles. ``Brad was really quite integral in our success this year,'' Gruden said. ``To be honest, I'm not sure we would have done as well as we did without him.''