2 QBs near completion of long pass

Matchup: After a combined 23 years, Rich Gannon or Brad Johnson will end his title search.

Super Bowl

January 26, 2003|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

SAN DIEGO -- Dogged perseverance will be rewarded tonight. The only question is whose.

Will Super Bowl XXXVII be the fulfillment of Rich Gannon's 14-year odyssey, spanning five NFL teams and countless crossroads?

Or will it be the culmination of Brad Johnson's nine-year journey through the same jungle with three different teams and a similar number of tribulations?

Two quarterbacks, one ring.

Destiny waits for one of them at Qualcomm Stadium, where the Oakland Raiders, led by Gannon, chase their fourth Super Bowl championship, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, led by Johnson, seek their first.

In one of this year's oddities, this is a Super Bowl that draws together quarterbacks and coaches who have worked side by side in the past, who have been -- and remain -- compatriots.

Just as Oakland coach Bill Callahan worked previously with Tampa coach Jon Gruden, Gannon and Johnson once played together with the Minnesota Vikings.

"When I was drafted [by the Vikings], he was the starting quarterback," Johnson said. "We spent one year together. Knowing Rich then, he was a very hard worker, very stubborn, very tough and everything you want out of a quarterback.

"He really took me under his wing, especially for a rookie. ... I've watched Rich for so many years. I've seen him go through all the highs and lows, especially the last four years. It's kind of unique how things have worked out."

When Gruden left Oakland last February to become coach of the Bucs, Johnson phoned Gannon to find out what he was in for. Gannon told him there would be no problem.

"Brad was trying to get a feel for Jon," Gannon said. "I told Brad he'd love Jon. Brad is Jon's type of quarterback. He's a tough guy, a hard worker, a grinder, a real competitor. Those are the type things that Jon looks for in a quarterback."

As fate and the Super Bowl would have it, Gruden's mark is on both quarterbacks.

When Gannon joined the Raiders as a free agent in 1999, he had already passed through Minnesota, Washington and Kansas City after getting drafted -- but failing to play for -- New England. He was out of the league when the Chiefs signed him, and he was viewed as a backup quarterback.

In three seasons under Gruden, his journeyman's profile changed drastically. In Gruden's version of the West Coast offense, Gannon evolved into one of the league's most prolific passers.

This season, he threw for 26 touchdowns and a league-high 4,689 yards. For that, he was named the NFL's Most Valuable Player.

"Gannon is a lot like a robot," Gruden said. "He is like the Terminator. He has got a lot of different ways to destruct a defense. With his legs, with his arm, with his mind.

"The guy will not waste plays. He will change plays three, four, five times. Obviously, he is surrounded right now with great football players."

Gannon has two future Hall of Fame receivers in Jerry Rice and Tim Brown, a prodigy in third-year receiver Jerry Porter, a running back with 91 catches in Charlie Garner and a massive offensive line.

The offense has been explosive, averaging 28.1 points a game. Gannon had a league-record 10 300-yard passing games this season, including six in a row.

It's not only Gannon's perseverance at work here, but his knowledge of the system he runs.

"I've been fortunate to have guys who have been able to retain a lot of information," said Raiders offensive coordinator Marc Trestman. "Rich is above that. We have a volume of plays and a style of packages. Because of [his] intelligence and the guys surrounding him, we're able to do a little bit more."

Callahan identified yet one more trait that makes Gannon successful -- his drive.

"His ability to push himself mentally in the classroom and mentally in his preparation for an opponent is something special not only to the coaching staff, but to the players," Callahan said. "The confidence level and his understanding are so high that he can direct anybody at any given time. He knows everything about the offense."

Johnson knew almost nothing about the offense when Gruden arrived in Tampa. He had worked under Brian Billick in Minnesota and Norv Turner in Washington, and was comfortable in those compatible systems.

Gruden's was entirely different.

"The biggest difference with Jon is learning terminology," Johnson, 34, said. "The West Coast terminology is quite a bit to spit out in the huddle. On Wednesdays and Thursdays, I kind of struggle in the huddle and Jon will give the play again and we get to Sunday and it comes out pretty fast."

After throwing five interceptions in his first seven games this season, Johnson has thrown just three in his past eight games. In the NFC championship game against Philadelphia, Johnson threw 20 completions to eight different receivers.

Johnson finished the regular season as the NFC's top-rated passer with 22 touchdowns and 3,049 yards.

Comparisons?

Johnson is bigger, but Gannon more mobile. Johnson is more reserved and Gannon more fiery. Both have been very effective.

"They are both great to deal with," Gruden said. "If you coach football and you get a chance to coach Rich Gannon, you'll have a hard time finding a guy that you would rather work with on a daily basis.

"After being with Brad Johnson for 10 months, he is also a perfectionist, a great leader, a unanimous selection of our team as a captain. I've been fortunate in that way to be around two marquee blue-chip leaders at that position."

Tonight, however, only one wins the ring.

Raiders vs. Buccaneers

What:Super Bowl XXXVII

Site:Qualcomm Stadium, San Diego

When:Today, 6:18 p.m.

Weather:Mostly sunny, high 77

TV:Chs. 2, 7 (pre-game coverage begins at 1 p.m.)

TV announcers: Al Michaels, play-by-play; John Madden, commentary.

Radio:WBAL (1090 AM)

Records:Tampa Bay 14-4; Oakland 13-5.

Line:Raiders by 3 1/2

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