Monday, September 8, 2003

When Michael Vick broke his leg during a preseason game three weeks ago, it not only changed the face — not to mention the arm and legs — of the Atlanta Falcons’ offense, it set up yet another juicy Redskins subplot.

Last week it was the “Jetskins.” Revenge, reprisal and respect, or the perceived lack thereof. For this week’s added dose of intrigue, we turn to Redskins coach Steve Spurrier and Falcons backup quarterback Doug Johnson, now the starter while Vick recovers.

These two, Spurrier and Johnson, have had some issues between them.

After having ex-Florida Gators Shane Matthews and Danny Wuerffel on his team in his first season last year, Spurrier will face one of his old college quarterbacks for the first time when the Redskins play the Falcons in Atlanta on Sunday. Johnson played four years for Spurrier, 1996 through 2000, and it was, by all accounts, a mutually interesting experience.

That’s one way to describe it. Other adjectives that might apply are tense, testy and contentious. There seems little doubt that something wasn’t right between them.

Appearing on an Atlanta radio station in late July, before he knew he would be starting against the Redskins, Johnson noted he and Spurrier “didn’t click.” He didn’t elaborate, but it pretty much confirmed what has been chronicled in the past.

Prior to that, a story on the CBS Sportsline Web site said Johnson believes Spurrier “helped torpedo his career by saying some not-so-nice things.” Johnson was quoted as saying, “We just didn’t get along.” He also said when he was taken out of a game 2 yards short of breaking Wuerffel’s single-game Florida passing record, Spurrier told him it was because he “didn’t deserve it.” Johnson reportedly said Spurrier gave him a game ball, anyway, which Johnson tossed away.

Indeed, during Johnson’s junior year, 1998, Florida was leading Vanderbilt 49-13 when Spurrier, never reluctant to run up the score, removed Johnson with 10:24 to play and replaced him with the little-used Larry Richart. Johnson had 460 passing yards; Wuerffel’s record was 462.

Asked about it on Friday, Spurrier denied telling Johnson he did not deserve the record. In fact, he seemed shocked to hear such a thing.

“Oh, you’re kidding” Spurrier said. “Oh, no. I don’t think we took him out on purpose.”

Curiously, Spurrier did say that when Johnson mentioned the record, he told him, “We’ll let you do it next year.” Johnson never did break it.

Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Travis Taylor, who was Johnson’s favorite target at Florida, broke into an immediate smile when asked about the game.

“I remember that,” he said. “I do remember Doug mentioning it to him. He came up to him after the game and said he was, like, 2 yards short of Danny’s record.”

And what does Johnson say now? Nothing.

Since replacing Vick and knowing he would face his old ball coach, Johnson has been careful to steer clear of any combustible material. He isn’t dumb.

There also was the matter of focusing on the Falcons’ first game, against Dallas yesterday. Completing 11 of his last 13 passes, Johnson finished 16 of 28 for 228 yards, two touchdowns, an interception and a rushing touchdown as Atlanta ruined Bill Parcells’ coaching debut with the Cowboys, 27-13

Asked about Spurrier last week, Johnson, who signed with the Falcons as a free agent in 2000 after going undrafted, said, “Just go ahead and get it out in the open. Our relationship is fine. He expects a lot from his players, and there’s nothing wrong with that. For people trying to make a soap opera of this. … He gets paid to coach as well as he can coach, and I’m expected to play as best I can. He’s trying to win a game and I’m trying to win a game.

“But, I’m telling you, I wouldn’t have traded [the experience] for the world. I think he has the best offensive mind, as far as the passing game goes. He’s as good as anybody out there. Just a great feel for the passing game. I think he’s one of the reasons I came here as a free agent and can still be here four years later, and starting. I’ll always take that wherever I go.”

Literally. Spurrier said Atlanta coach Dan Reeves told him Johnson had given the Falcons a couple of Florida “ball plays.”

Johnson’s career as a Gator was interrupted by a one-game suspension for missing curfew his sophomore year, rotator-cuff surgery and a broken ankle and the occasional benching, which wasn’t unusual. Spurrier said all his quarterbacks were benched at one time or another.

All of his quarterbacks were shouted at at one time or another, too, in full view of cameras and stadium crowds. But with Johnson, the discussions seemed even more animated. Of his overall relationship with Johnson, Spurrier said, “I think we got along pretty well. I had to suspend him for a game, but he came back after that. He was like most of our other quarterbacks. He had some ups and downs. But overall, he played well. He started for, gosh, for about three years. He had some very good games.”

Johnson had enough good games to finish third in career touchdown passes (behind Wuerffel and Matthews) and sixth in passing yards at Florida. This despite yet another obstacle. In several games Spurrier rotated Johnson with another quarterback, on every play or every other play or every series. In 1997 against Florida State, it was Johnson and Noah Brindise, now the Redskins’ assistant quarterbacks coach. Later, it was Johnson and Jesse Palmer, who now is Kerry Collins’ backup with the New York Giants.

The system had mixed results. Said Spurrier, “When you had players playing about equally [in ability], sometimes it was a way of eliminating doing the signals, so I could coach ‘em up on the play right before they go in there. Sort of like having the headset now [to call plays]. Telling them what to look for.”

On this particular subject, Johnson shuns diplomacy.

“I think alternating quarterbacks is the worst thing you can do for the quarterback,” he said. “I know he said it was the best thing to do to win the ballgame, and he tried the best he could. But if you ask me if alternating quarterbacks is good, I’d say it was the worst thing in the world. A) you don’t get into a rhythm. B) you don’t know who to look at as a leader. It shows the team the coaches don’t have confidence in the players. You pick a guy, and if it’s the wrong decision you live with it.”

Taylor, who has witnessed a parade of quarterbacks in Baltimore, although none of them alternated, concurred with Johnson.

“It was tough,” Taylor said. “I mean, you have two different quarterbacks and one guy gets hot and he has to go out. So you never really get into a rhythm. … I don’t think Doug or Jesse were able to do that.”

Coincidentally, Johnson had the same thing happen to him in Atlanta, albeit briefly. During the 2001 season, when Vick was a rookie, Falcons coach Dan Reeves alternated Vick and Johnson on 22 straight plays during the second half of a game against Dallas. Johnson ended up throwing the game-winning touchdown. A few weeks later, Vick and Johnson alternated on one series in a game against St. Louis.

Vick’s emergence as a dazzling, multi-threat talent put an end to that last season, although Johnson was ready when needed. He made just his third career start in place of the injured Vick against the New York Giants last October. Johnson completed 19 of 25 passes for 257 yards and a touchdown, and scrambled for another score as Atlanta won 17-10.

Johnson’s baseball career also was a point of contention with Spurrier. An infielder drafted out of high school in the second round by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Johnson got a $400,000 signing bonus and was considered a top prospect. He played rookie league ball for two summers. But they happened to be the summers before his first and second years at Florida, and Spurrier, who demands total commitment from his quarterbacks, wasn’t pleased.

Reminded of that, what Spurrier remembers most is when Johnson showed up for his first preseason camp with the Gators. “He couldn’t make that little mile-and-a-half run that we have,” he said. “That got him in the doghouse a little bit with the coaches.”

For Johnson, who finally gave up baseball so he could concentrate on football, the doghouse was a familiar residence. His personality would seem to have had something to do with that. Words used to describe him include “stubborn” and “hard-headed,” and those words are his words. “I’ve always been a strong-minded human being,” he said.

“He definitely speaks his mind,” Taylor said. “He’s not gonna sugarcoat things for you. He’ll definitely speak his mind.”

No wonder he clashed with Spurrier. Confidence and assertiveness are desirable qualities among quarterbacks. But with Spurrier, only to a point. He is, above all else, a quarterbacks coach, certain beyond all doubt there are but two ways to play the position — his way and the wrong way.

Backing up Wuerffel in 1996, the year the Gators won the national championship and Wuerffel the Heisman Trophy, Johnson became the first first-year freshman to play quarterback at Florida. He went on to put up some pretty good numbers and win some big games. But for a variety of reasons, Florida never won an SEC title during his three years as the No.1 or No.2 quarterback and a lot of Gators fans blame him for that.

Johnson, who grew up in Gainesville near the Florida campus and dreamed of firing footballs for the Gators, has no regrets — about that, or playing for Spurrier, no matter how difficult it might have been.

“I think you live and learn from everything,” Johnson said. “At Florida I tried not to make the same mistakes twice. If you make a mistake, learn from it. That’s what we all have to do in life. I had some great experiences I learned from, and I tried to apply all the lessons. Like I said, I wouldn’t trade those four years for anything. I was a Gator before I went there. I’ll always be a Gator.”

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