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Xs and O's / LONNIE WHITE

Johnson Decision Speaks Volumes

November 23, 2003|LONNIE WHITE

It was the second week of the season, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had tied Carolina, 9-9, with no time left on Keenan McCardell's six-yard touchdown reception from Brad Johnson.

The Buccaneers, however, failed to win the game when the Panthers' Kris Jenkins broke through the line to block Martin Gramatica's extra-point kick. Carolina then won the game in overtime on John Kasay's field goal.

Wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson, who had caught nine passes for 102 yards, was not the one who missed his block on the extra point.

Three weeks later, Tampa Bay dominated Indianapolis for more than three quarters. The Buccaneers had led at halftime, 21-0, and after Ronde Barber's interception and 29-yard touchdown return, they held a commanding 35-14 lead with 5:09 remaining.

Tampa Bay's defense, however, could not stop the Colts' Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison down the stretch. Harrison caught a pass for one touchdown and set up another as the Colts scored 21 unanswered points and sent the game into overtime. Indianapolis then won on Mike Vanderjagt's field goal.

It sure wasn't Johnson trying to play defense on Harrison, who ripped the Buccaneers' secondary with 11 catches for 176 yards and two touchdowns.

Flash back to three weeks ago. With Johnson recording his best game of the season -- 10 catches for 123 yards -- the Buccaneers rallied from a two-touchdown deficit and tied New Orleans, 14-14. But Tampa Bay's defense again could not get the job done.

In the final two minutes, the Saints drove downfield and won the game on a 47-yard field goal by John Carney with eight seconds left.

It definitely wasn't Johnson's fault for letting the Saints start a drive from their own 28 and move the ball 43 yards to set up the winning field goal.

My point is simple. It's highly unlikely that the defending Super Bowl champions would have deactivated Johnson, as they did last week, if the Buccaneers were 7-3 instead of 4-6.

Outspoken players have always been a part of football. They're in every locker room. They are the players who make teammates cringe with their biting comments. Often, they are the same people who'll do anything to help their team win.

I've known Johnson since he was 10. He used to hang around the USC campus when I played for the Trojans in the early 1980s. Everyone regarded him as a friend of the football program, and he has always been candid.

He loved to make fun of players. He once laughed at me for not making an important trip as a sophomore. At the time, he could not have been older than 12.

But something just doesn't smell right about how Tampa Bay put him on the inactive list.

Now I don't know whether Johnson has missed or been late to meetings and workouts. But the timing of Tampa Bay's action generates more questions than answers.

It wasn't long ago that the Buccaneers gladly gave Johnson an eight-year, $56-million contract, and he was the same in-your-face player that he is now.

It makes you wonder about Tampa Bay Coach Jon Gruden. It's amazing that such a tough disciplinarian can take a team to the Super Bowl one year, then lose control of that team to a player the next.

Whether or not Gruden and Tampa Bay's management want to admit it, making that move now with Johnson makes him the scapegoat. But isn't that giving an awful lot of power to just one player?

I remember being a rookie with the New Orleans Saints in 1987. The team had a veteran defensive lineman who always spoke his mind. Most of the time, he rubbed people the wrong way. Other times, he was just amusing.

But before the season began, Coach Jim Mora decided that the player was not bigger than the team. The Saints cut him.

That's what the Buccaneers should have done with Johnson, if they believed he had turned into a disruptive force.

Tampa Bay should have either cut Johnson before the season began or traded him once he had fallen out of favor with Gruden.

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