- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 8, 2003

Brad Johnson compares his life in the NFL to that of a shy, plain girl in high school, the one who doesn’t draw much attention from the boys but is actually the best catch of them all.

“Sometimes, maybe the prettiest girl isn’t always the best girl,” the Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback said.

Johnson has never been the prettiest girl in the class. He doesn’t inspire fear in opposing defenses like Michael Vick or Peyton Manning. He gets overshadowed by more popular teammates like Keyshawn Johnson and Warren Sapp.

“I’m not the kind of guy who’s flashy and running around making all the highlights on ESPN,” Johnson said. “But I do feel like I’ve played for some pretty good teams and our teams have had a good chance to win over the years.”

Johnson has done more than give the Bucs a chance to win. He helped them win it all, leading the Bucs to their first Super Bowl title last January.

Yet the 35-year-old, who will face the Washington Redskins on Sunday for the first time since leaving Washington after the 2000 season, continues to carry his longstanding stigmas everywhere he goes.

“Brad’s got some labels that are pretty negative,” Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden said. “I think he’s been called everything from a coach on the field to a journeyman. There’s not a lot of people calling him the NFC’s leading passer right now, a Pro Bowl player in two different cities and a Super Bowl champion.”

Johnson indeed leads the NFC with a 92.9 passer rating. He was named to the Pro Bowl last year, following his 1999 appearance while still with the Redskins. And, of course, he is the proud owner of his own Super Bowl ring — the ultimate career validation for an NFL quarterback.

“It’s an incredible experience, and you wish that everyone who plays could go through that,” Johnson said. “I don’t think you really understand what it means until you experience it. There are 37 teams that have won it, 23 quarterbacks. To be a part of that class is unbelievable.”

Many in the Redskins organization a few years ago questioned whether Johnson would ever join that exclusive club. Despite passing for 4,005 yards and leading Washington to the playoffs in 1999, Johnson was thrust into a quarterback controversy the following year when the Redskins gave veteran Jeff George an $18.25million contract to back him up.

With George lurking on the bench, Johnson led Washington’s $100million roster to a 6-2 start before spraining his left knee in a Monday night loss to Tennessee. He returned to play the final two games, by which time the Redskins’ season of promise had fallen apart.

All the while, Johnson was seeking a contract extension, but club officials refused to even begin talks until they resolved other matters they deemed higher priority. By the offseason, Johnson had little desire to remain in Washington any longer after accusing owner Dan Snyder of orchestrating his playing time, and the Redskins had little desire to keep him over George.

Johnson signed with the Bucs for five years and $28million. While he was mugging for cameras after last January’s Super Bowl, telling the world he was “going to Disneyland,” the Redskins were rebuilding their roster after a disappointing 7-9 season.

Johnson refrained from taking any shots at his old team yesterday during a conference call with Washington reporters.

“I’m very proud of my two years there,” he said. “I was the only quarterback that led the team to the playoffs in the last 10 years. I was 10-6 as starter the first year, 7-4 as starter the next. The team was 1-4 without me. I feel like I gave my team a chance to win there, and we did some good things. It’s unfortunate the way things did kind of turn out.

“When I left, it was probably mutual. … It’s probably been a good change for both parties.”

Washington’s few holdovers from the Johnson days (only Champ Bailey and Jon Jansen remain from the 1999 team; five others have been around since 2000) still have a great deal of respect for their former quarterback, and they are universally happy to see him succeed elsewhere.

Asked if he thinks Johnson got a fair shake in Washington, Bailey said, “Honestly? No. But it was probably better for him to go somewhere else. It worked out good for him. I’ll bet he’s happy. That’s all that matters.”

There is still that little matter of the credit — or lack thereof — that Johnson seems to receive from fans and media around the league. For now, the quarterbacking version of the shy, plain girl will have to be content to accept praise from his peers and coaches.

“This is a great quarterback,” Gruden said. “I’m a little disappointed that he doesn’t get a little more status around the league. He’s a winner.”

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