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Super Bowl XXXVII | NFC / Tampa Bay Report

A Clean Break

Compulsive Brad Johnson can make a name for himself

January 26, 2003|Bill Dwyre | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — It's Super Bowl time, so we know all about Rich Gannon, the Oakland Raider quarterback, spectacular passer and fiery competitor. He is the NFL most valuable player, with a swagger to go with the honor.

But what about the quarterback on the other team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers? Isn't it some guy named Johnson? Is that the same Johnson who played for USC and came out of El Toro High? Rob Johnson?

Or are we mixed up? Is there another guy named Johnson here, the player who used to be with the Minnesota Vikings when we didn't pay much attention to them except for the year Randall Cunningham made like Dan Marino?

Yup, that's the guy, Brad Johnson, perhaps the most invisible Super Bowl quarterback since Joe Namath's backup.

But then, it figures that even the starting quarterback might not get noticed much on a Tampa Bay team that is coached by the handsome and charismatic Jon Gruden and features talkative egocentrics Warren Sapp and Keyshawn Johnson. Don King would have a tough time getting noticed alongside that Tampa Triumvirate.

It turns out that Brad Johnson is certainly worth noticing.

He ranked first in the NFC in passing rating this season, completing 281 of 451 for 3,049 yards and 22 touchdowns. He had only six passes intercepted and his completion average of 62.3% is a Buccaneer record.

Mostly, in his 11 years of kicking around the NFL, Johnson is a winner. His record as a starter is 51-28, a .646 winning percentage that places him second among active NFL quarterbacks, just .19 behind Brett Favre, who is 115-58. He ranks 10th among all NFL quarterbacks in career passing rating; the names above him include Joe Montana, Steve Young, Favre, Marino and Gannon.

Statistics aside, Johnson is an interesting personality, just not quite the kind who will light up a room already illuminated by the strobe lights of Gruden, Sapp and Keyshawn.

He was born 34 years ago in Black Mountain, N.C., or, as he puts it, "I'm from a little town on a dirt road at the top of a hill."

He has striking blue eyes, freckles and light brown hair. All that, coupled with his Southern twang, brings images of Tom Sawyer floating on a raft down the Mississippi.

But that image belies reality. There is a competitive burn within Johnson, who was chosen in the ninth round of the 1992 draft by the Vikings with the 227th pick and didn't play one minute of one game for his first two seasons.

Once he got his shot, when Warren Moon was injured, he was ready to make his way in a league that has a tendency to eat its young.

"I've had more valleys than peaks in my career," he says, reflecting on a series of injuries and management decisions that seemed to push him down every time he showed he was ready to step up.

When he appeared to be the future of the Vikings, he broke his leg and Cunningham suddenly became All-World. When the Redskins traded for him, he got them an NFC East title in 1999, but soon ownership fell in love with Jeff George and Johnson was back being anonymous Brad.

He decided to go the free-agent route and decided that Tampa Bay was his best landing spot. In 2001, he passed for 3,406 yards and 13 touchdowns and got the Buccaneers into the playoffs, losing to the Eagles.

This season, with Gruden joining the mix, Brad Johnson, with Rob as his backup, reversed that playoff result with the Eagles in the NFC title game, passing for 259 yards and a touchdown in the 27-10 victory at Philadelphia.

So here he is, again on the verge of emerging from the pack of faceless, undistinguished Johnsons, on a Super Bowl stage that gives some degree of permanence to personalities.

Already, he has moved from bland to quirky. His teammates have let it be known that he is a clean-and-dry freak, and his obsessive/compulsive changing of uniforms at practice, during games, and perhaps even on picture day has provided new fodder for the journalistic cannons.

"When he retires," reserve running back Aaron Stecker said, "we're just gonna get him three trunks of new, clean stuff for his going-away party."

Johnson keeps trunks full of extra socks and shoulder pads and jerseys and wrist bands and hand towels, even shoes. He changes after pregame warmups, then again at the half. He will even change jerseys along the sideline during a game.

"I just like the clean feel," he said. "You play a half, and you are all sweaty and your jersey is all torn and you just feel cleaner, better, ready to start fresh, with a new set of clothes. You see golfers do it after nine holes on a particularly hot day. You see tennis players change in the middle of a set."

He was asked if he even changes during Monday night games, when it tends not to be quite so hot.

"Oh, yes," he said. "I chart how much time I have and there is a little more at halftime on Monday nights, 14 minutes plus another minute or so for other things. I watch these things closely."

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