B. Johnson far cry from flashy, but lights way for Bucs' offense

Tampa Bay's chances vs. Eagles for NFC title rest heavily with QB

Nfl Playoffs

January 15, 2003|By Brent Jones | Brent Jones,SUN STAFF

On a day when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers gave their fans everything in the world to cheer about -- including 65,000 free battle flags, five forced turnovers and four first-half touchdowns in Sunday's playoff victory over the San Francisco 49ers -- bloodied quarterback Brad Johnson drew the loudest ovation.

Johnson was carted off the field three minutes into the third quarter with his team up by 22 after he'd scrambled for 5 yards and was tackled by linebacker Derek Smith, whose hand got through Johnson's face mask and opened up a cut so gruesome, it looked as if the quarterback had been sucker-punched.

Johnson remained on the ground while trainers rushed to his aid and worked on the gash over his right eye before calling for the cart to take him back to the locker room. As he left the field, Johnson held one towel to his head while punching the air with his other arm, urging his team to go on without him.

"It was a crazy play -- a play I was trying to run, which doesn't happen often, and [Smith's] hand got in there and tore me open," Johnson said. "I could feel the blood start flowing immediately."

Johnson, whose scramble helped produce a first down, missed the rest of that series but returned for the Bucs' next possession and finished out the 31-6 rout.

Teammates said afterward that they knew he would come back. They probably were praying so, too, realizing an extended absence by Johnson would leave the team little chance in Sunday's NFC championship game against the Philadelphia Eagles at Veterans Stadium.

"It's the difference between the Bengals and the Bucs," defensive tackle Warren Sapp said of what his team is like without Johnson.

Johnson missed the final two games of the regular season with a back injury, and the Bucs' offense resembled that of previous seasons under former coach Tony Dungy. Tampa Bay managed just one meaningless touchdown behind an ineffective combination of Shaun King and Rob Johnson while splitting games with Pittsburgh and Chicago.

"He's a key to why we're here, and I'm proud of him," said Jon Gruden, who revamped the offense in his first-year as coach.

"The one thing about Brad is you have to look at his win-loss record. The guy wins games. He's thrown for big yardage in Norv Turner's system in Washington. He's had a big year with Brian Billick in Minnesota. It was a matter of me getting a feel for him, and him a feel for me and trying to work together to bring an offense here that's a little bit different, to say the least, than what they had been doing here."

An offense that has averaged 27 points the past seven games under Johnson had that number cut by 16 when he was out. More importantly, Johnson's recent play gives the Bucs, whose mental toughness comes into question when teams like Philadelphia challenge their manhood, a legitimate feeling of confidence heading into Sunday's game.

The Eagles have won back-to-back first-round playoff games (by a 52-12 combined margin) over Tampa Bay the past two seasons and a regular-season game this year. All of the games unfolded the same way: Philadelphia ran the ball through the teeth of the Bucs' defense, shut them down offensively and caused turnovers.

Johnson, in his second year with Tampa Bay, was around for two of those losses, including the 20-10 defeat at the Vet in October.

"I think from that game on, we really took off as an offense," Johnson said. "The rushing game, we had four or five games where we rushed over 100 yards. The passing protection got much better. We started throwing touchdown passes. We just started making plays. The first four or five games of the season, we were moving the ball, but making turnovers and not making plays. The second half of the season, we scored a lot of points."

And in doing so, Johnson, whose lead feet, average but accurate arm and rather mundane personality make him easily the least flashy of any the remaining playoff quarterbacks, has won over a team and now a city.

"I'd like to be known as a guy who makes plays," Johnson said. "I think this team believes that. I think the fans are just catching on to that."

NFL playoffs

Sunday's games

NFC championship

Tampa Bay (13-4) at Philadelphia (13-4), 3 p.m. TV: 45, 5. Line: Phila. by 4. AFC championship

Tennessee (12-5) at Oakland (12-5), 6:30 p.m. TV: 13, 9. Line: Oak. by 7 1/2 .

NFL playoffs

Conference championships

Sunday

(Line in parentheses) Time TV

NFC

Tampa Bay at Philadelphia (-4) 3 p.m. 45, 5

AFC

Tennessee at Oakland (-7 1/2 ) 6:30 p.m. 13, 9

Super Bowl XXXVII

Jan. 26

At Qualcomm Stadium, San Diego NFC vs. AFC, 6:18 p.m., chs. 2, 7

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