- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 6, 2001

One lazy day last summer, back when life was good with the Washington Redskins, quarterback Brad Johnson was asked to name his favorite NFL opponent.

"Really Tampa Bay," Johnson replied. "All the way from [my days with] Minnesota. Usually your biggest numbers aren't against them, but it's probably the most competitive game. And I've got a lot of friends who play with them, especially [coach] Tony Dungy. It's a big game, a big rivalry for me."

Ten months and one helter-skelter season later, Johnson leaves the team he led to the 1999 playoffs and joins his favorite opponent. The 32-year-old yesterday signed a five-year, $28 million contract with a $6.5 million signing bonus, picking the Bucs over the Baltimore Ravens.

Since midseason, Johnson appeared headed for Baltimore and a reunion with coach Brian Billick, his former Vikings coordinator. The Ravens opened free agency Friday by making almost identical offers to Johnson and Elvis Grbac, apparently confident one would sign for below market value to join the defending Super Bowl champions.

Last night Grbac, two years younger and coming off a career season, was still considering Baltimore and a potential big-money offer from the lowly Cincinnati Bengals.

Johnson, meanwhile, decided Saturday that the Bucs had become his top choice. That changed from late in the season, when he said Baltimore was No. 1 and Tampa Bay No. 2.

"I felt like either place was a no-brainer," Johnson told CNN/SI last night. "There's a gamble in everything, but I could have been happy with either choice we had."

Baltimore's top offer was for four years, $22 million with a $4 million signing bonus, but Johnson's agent Phil Williams stressed that the decision was not financial. Williams said he pursued Tampa Bay after Johnson made his choice.

"It was very difficult for Brad to make that decision," Williams said from Atlanta. "But he decided Tampa Bay was the place he really wanted to be."

A playoff-ready squad awaits on Florida's Gulf Coast, where the Bucs have reached the postseason three of the past four years. Tampa Bay apparently has given up on 23-year-old Shaun King, a 6-foot passer who spent last year as the unchallenged starter. The Bucs' quarterback corps also includes, at least for now, Ryan Leaf, the draft's second overall pick in 1998 who recently was claimed off waivers.

Tampa Bay rode its outstanding defense to the NFC title game in 1999 but lost that game 11-6 to the eventual Super Bowl champion St. Louis Rams. Offensive coordinator Les Steckel then was hired and Keyshawn Johnson was traded for and then awarded a contract that made him the game's highest-paid wide receiver, but the 2000 Bucs ranked 21st in offense and lost in the playoffs' first round.

Hopes now ride on Brad Johnson and coordinator Clyde Christensen, who was promoted from quarterbacks coach after Steckel was fired. Christensen and Dungy, the Vikings' defensive coordinator while Brad Johnson was at Minnesota, reportedly lobbied Johnson, a Florida State product who keeps his offseason home in Tallahassee, Fla.

Johnson becomes the second unrestricted free agent to depart the Redskins this offseason, following wide receiver Albert Connell, who signed Sunday with the New Orleans Saints. New coach Marty Schottenheimer made no attempt to re-sign either, though he wanted to talk to Johnson until Williams told him not to bother.

Johnson's relationship with the Redskins began to fray last offseason when he wanted to discuss a contract extension and the club instead signed Jeff George to a four-year, $18.25 million deal as a backup.

The Redskins then told Johnson they would not discuss an extension until after other priorities. That meant extensive negotiations with LaVar Arrington and Chris Samuels, the draft's second and third picks, and a multi-year extension for franchise running back Stephen Davis.

Johnson's struggles in early games complicated his status, and he finally broke off the virtually non-existent talks in October. Johnson then sprained his knee in an Oct. 30 loss to the Tennessee Titans. After rehabilitation Johnson accused owner Dan Snyder of orchestrating his playing time on the flailing club, which finished 8-8 and out of the playoffs despite its $100 million roster.

The Redskins get no compensation for either Johnson or Connell. Johnson, a ninth-round pick by the Vikings in 1992, was obtained from Minnesota in a Feb. 1999 trade for 1999 first- and third-round draft picks and a 2000 second-rounder. He threw for 4,005 yards and 24 touchdowns in 1999 and was named to the Pro Bowl, but last season he had just 2,505 yards, 11 touchdowns and 15 interceptions.

Johnson's contract will pay him a base salary of $750,000 this season, making his cap figure $2.05 million. Johnson will be paid $3.5 million next season, receive a $2 million roster bonus in March 2003, then have salaries of $4.5 million, $4.75 million and $6 million. He also can earn $2 million escalators on his salaries in 2003 and 2004.

Notes Redskins defensive end N.D. Kalu, an unrestricted free agent, visited Atlanta yesterday, agent Vann McElroy said from Dallas. Kalu, 25, has trips scheduled to seven other teams, including two NFC East rivals, the New York Giants and Philadelphia.

The Giants considered tendering an offer to the athletic Kalu last offseason when he was a restricted free agent, but then-coach Norv Turner made it clear the Redskins would match it. Kalu then spent most of the season on the bench while veteran Bruce Smith played a surprising number of snaps.

Redskins coach Marty Schottenheimer wants to re-sign Kalu, but the team has no cap room. McElroy shot down the chances Kalu remaining, saying, "It's not so much that he's serious [about leaving], it's just that they don't have the money to pay him." …

Redskins wide receiver James Thrash, also unrestricted, visited San Diego and Denver. With the former he would be reunited with Norv Turner, now the Chargers offensive coordinator; with the latter he would be a third option behind Ed McCaffrey and Rod Smith, each of whom caught at least 100 passes last season. Schottenheimer also would like to re-sign Thrash, 25… .

Former Redskins guard Tre Johnson visited Detroit and apparently impressed team president Matt Millen with his recovery from a torn ACL. However, the Lions do not appear in a hurry to sign anyone at that position. Pete Kendall, a top guard lately of Seattle, also visited Detroit.

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