- The Washington Times - Friday, January 10, 2003

Maybe it's because he appears so ungainly.

Maybe it's because he is more efficient than spectacular.

Maybe it's because he is so self-effacing.

Whatever the reason, Brad Johnson is one of those athletes who is not fully appreciated until he is gone.

That is something the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, whom Johnson will quarterback against the San Francisco 49ers in a divisional playoff game Sunday, learned late this season.

The Bucs went 10-3 and scored 28 touchdowns in Johnson's 13 starts this season, but the offense scored only one touchdown in the three games he missed because of his bruised ribs and a bad back.

Johnson played for his second coach and second offensive coordinator in as many seasons and with an offense that had several key additions.

“Brad's got a great touch and a great feel for pressure,” said first-year coach Jon Gruden, who also is the team's de facto offensive coordinator. “He'll stand in there and take a lick, and he's got dead-on accuracy. He's a great passer. Jiminy Christmas, the guy threw 15 touchdown passes in five games. Obviously, we've been a little bit more productive [with Johnson under center].”

So were the Redskins, who in Johnson's first season won their first divisional title in eight years. Washington went 17-10 with Johnson starting and 1-4 with him on the bench. They are 15-17 since he signed with the Buccaneers before the 2001 season.

Johnson played so well in 1999 that he was voted to the Pro Bowl. However, that wasn't good enough for new Redskins owner Dan Snyder who signed talented malcontent Jeff George and pressured coach Norv Turner to play the new quarterback instead of Johnson. After the 2000 season Johnson never considered re-signing with Washington and moved on to Tampa Bay.

“Whether it's a new coach or a new situation, it's always learn the system and take care of the play you have,” Johnson said. “Make the right reads, make the right throw. That's where you gain confidence from other players, taking care of your responsibilities. That's what I've tried to do throughout my career, this season and the playoffs.”

Making the right reads and the right throws haven't gotten Johnson a lot of respect. He was not chosen for the Pro Bowl this season, even though he led the NFC in passing and set franchise records for touchdown passes, completion percentage and lowest interception percentage.

The reason lies, in part, in his lack of playoff success.

Johnson is 51-28 in the regular season, second-best among active quarterbacks. The playoffs are another and much less appealing story.

Johnson is 1-3 in the postseason with two touchdown passes against nine interceptions. He was picked off four times in the Bucs' first-round loss to the Philadelphia Eagles last January. He failed to produce a touchdown in his last playoff game at Raymond James Stadium, where his Redskins lost to the Bucs three years ago.

“It doesn't matter whether it's fair or unfair, that's the way you're going to be judged ultimately,” Johnson said of his playoff performances. “It will be the first question you're asked 20 years from now.”

Johnson has an opportunity to produce a satisfying answer to that question against the 49ers on Sunday. He says he is physically ready.

Johnson has been asked about his back every day since he was hurt against the Lions in Detroit on Dec.15, but he hasn't reported even a twinge since he returned to practice New Year's Day.

“I'm getting all the reps,” Johnson said. “I'm able to drop back full speed. I'm able to throw every ball that needs to be thrown. I don't feel any pain. The story is over.”

Perhaps and it will be if Johnson continues his sterling play at home. During his two seasons at Raymond James with the Bucs, Johnson has completed 62 percent of his passes for 3,375 yards, 23 touchdowns and just six interceptions. He is 11-4 at home as a Buc.

Johnson isn't as mobile as Rich Gannon, Gruden's quarterback with the Oakland Raiders. He isn't as fiery either. But Gruden still is a big fan of the 34-year-old passer.

“Brad is a very steady, low-key, humble, zoomed-in guy who has no peaks and valleys in terms of his emotions,” Gruden said. “When the game starts, his eyes are big, and he's a great competitor. I'm really excited about a future with Brad, and I think he's excited about where he can go as quarterback of this team.”

If the Bucs, a 5-point favorite, can beat the 49ers, Johnson will be one victory away from the first Super Bowl of an 11-year career that didn't really get going until his fifth season in Minnesota, when he replaced injured Warren Moon.

Johnson threw for 275 yards in his first start. Three years later, he passed for a Redskins-record 471 yards against the 49ers to clinch the NFC East title.

And now, on the verge of his biggest game as a Buc, he's never been hotter, with a 15:1 touchdown-interception ratio before he was hurt.

“I'm just doing the same thing,” Johnson said. “If you play the lotto long enough, you'll eventually hit it. Playing within the system is the biggest thing. I thought we were playing pretty well in the beginning of the season, but we weren't getting the touchdowns. I don't feel I'm playing any different now.

“You get caught up in touchdowns and everything else, but I get caught up in maintaining long drives and seeing good things happen.”

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