- The Washington Times - Friday, January 24, 2003

SAN DIEGO Brad Johnson likes things to be just so.

Johnson is a guy who changes his uniform and shoes between warmups and the kickoff and again at halftime. He doesn't like to be wet. He doesn't like to be dirty. And he doesn't like it if a teammate puts his feet up on a desk.

The famously meticulous some might say fussy quarterback now has the chance to finish this season in a fashion that would be, well, just perfect exactly the way he likes things.

Johnson is preparing to lead the Tampa Bay Buccaneers against the Oakland Raiders in Super Bowl XXXVII on Sunday, a scenario that seemed so unlikely only a year ago.

Johnson had his job as a starter for the Washington Redskins ripped away by owner Dan Snyder less than a year after leading the team to the 1999 NFC East title. Frustrated, Johnson fled to Tampa.

Things were not perfect with the Bucs. Johnson ended the 2001 season by throwing four interceptions in an ugly first-round playoff loss that got supportive coach Tony Dungy fired.

Dungy's replacement was Jon Gruden, who had great success in Oakland with Rich Gannon exactly the kind of mobile quarterback that Johnson wasn't and backup Shaun King was. Then the Bucs signed Rob Johnson from Buffalo, giving them another mobile alternative at quarterback.

Typically, Brad Johnson wasn't fazed by the prospect of having to prove himself again after 10 seasons in the NFL, five of which he spent as a starter.

"Every year they say I'm slow, I'm not smart, I've got a weak arm," Johnson said. "I've heard it all. But somehow I'm winning football games. I've always played pretty well wherever I've been Minnesota, Washington, Tampa been to the playoffs.

"I saw what happened in Oakland with Jon and Rich, an older quarterback like myself and his career taking off, and I thought my career could take off, too. I was very excited about it."

But being the meticulous sort that he is, Johnson called ex-teammate Gannon to find out more about Gruden.

"He raved about Jon," Johnson said. "He said Jon was very intense and very detail-oriented, that you would never go into a game more prepared than you are with Jon and how fun it is to play for Jon."

Meanwhile, Gruden did a little homework of his own.

Gruden called former Redskins coach Norv Turner to learn more about Johnson. Johnson went to the Pro Bowl while playing for Turner in 1999, but he had struggled badly since, throwing 24 touchdowns against 30 interceptions.

Gruden discovered that Johnson, while the antithesis of the athletic types seemingly taking over the position, was a strong leader, a fierce if quiet competitor and, most important, a winner.

"I'm very impressed with Brad's pocket presence and his accuracy," Gruden said. "He loves to prepare, and he's a great competitor and a tough guy. And his won-loss record speaks volumes."

The only active quarterback with 50 starts and a higher winning percentage than Johnson's .646 (51-28) is three-time MVP Brett Favre of Green Bay. That's pretty impressive company for a ninth-round draft pick who didn't start as a senior at Florida State and who was loaned to the World League so he could get a chance to play during his first four seasons with Minnesota.

"I wasn't ready to play early in my career," Johnson said. "I was a late bloomer. But I study like no other. I work like no other. I was going to be ready when my time came, and I was."

By the start of training camp, Gruden had decided Johnson was his starter. It was the correct choice. At 34, he led the NFC with a career-high 92.9 passer rating. His 22/6 touchdown/interception ratio was a personal best and tied for the league lead.

"Brad makes great decisions, and he makes them quickly," Raiders defensive backs coach Ron Lynn said.

The Bucs were 10-3 in Johnson's 13 starts (he missed one game with a cracked rib and two with a bad back), scoring 28 offensive touchdowns. Tampa Bay went 2-1 without Johnson, but the offense managed just one touchdown in those three games. And Johnson and Co. generated 51 points in the playoff victories over San Francisco and Philadelphia. Not that any of this earned Johnson his second Pro Bowl trip.

"Brad gets a bum rap because he's not the new-age quarterback," said Bucs center Jeff Christy, who played six seasons with Johnson in Minnesota and helped lure him to Tampa Bay as a free agent in 2001. "Brad wins more with his heart and his mind than his arm, but if you give him the time, he can pick apart a defense."

If Johnson does so to the Raiders on Sunday, he and the long-downtrodden Bucs will be on top of the football world.

"For the first time, I don't have to buy all the chips and dip and the keg of beer [while watching the Super Bowl on TV]," Johnson said. "This year I'm the one playing."

It's almost perfect.

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