Johnson wants ball, attention

Offense: Sure-handed newcomer Kevin Johnson has great confidence in his ability to become an elite receiver and help turn around the Ravens' anemic passing game.

Nfl Preview 2004

The Ravens

September 09, 2004|By Brent Jones | Brent Jones,SUN STAFF

No need to turn to page 113 of the Ravens' media guide to find out about Kevin Johnson's NFL career. Just ask the receiver, who was acquired to bring a consistent pair of hands to the passing game, and he can pretty much deliver the blow-by-blow.

"I've had eight- and nine-touchdown seasons. I've had a 1,000-yard season," Johnson said. "Out of five years, I've had near two 1,000-yard seasons. I've been on the all-rookie team. It's just a matter of me being put in this situation like we're in now in a high-profile environment and making plays when it counts most. That's where you get your exposure."

If Johnson wanted exposure and a legitimate chance at winning a title, he landed in the right place with the Ravens. From omnipresent coach Brian Billick to recently signed future Hall of Fame cornerback Deion Sanders, sideshows will not be hard to find.

And here is a subplot the Ravens face annually: Which receiver will step up and help jump-start an offense that hasn't had a dangerous passing game since 1997?

Johnson wants it to be him.

And as has been the case since he was the Cleveland Browns' second-round pick in the 1999 draft, Johnson is not shy about saying so.

"I've always been looked at as never being a No. 1 [receiver], but I feel like in any situation, you give me the opportunities other guys get, I'm going to put up numbers," Johnson said. "That's just how this league is built. You look at guys who are so-called No. 1s, like [the Miami Dolphins'] Chris Chambers. I'm averaging more catches than he's had in his best year."

That is actually true, and that's what the Ravens like so much about Johnson. He has averaged 66.4 catches a season in his five years, more than any Ravens receiver has had since Qadry Ismail had 74 in 2001.

If the preseason is an indicator, Johnson is well on pace.

He led the Ravens with nine catches for 110 yards in four games. More importantly, he established himself as quarterback Kyle Boller's go-to guy, though the Ravens were without receiver Travis Taylor and tight end Todd Heap for the final two games.

"It's a great comfort level for us as coaches, but also Kyle," receivers coach David Shaw said. "Kyle knows if he's got single coverage, he's going to throw him the ball, and it might be tight, but he'll still make a play on it."

Johnson split the 2003 season between the Browns and Jacksonville Jaguars, who claimed Johnson when he was waived after nine games. The 5-foot-11, 195-pound veteran prides himself on being sure-handed and estimates he hasn't had more than six dropped passes in one year.

Billick likes to compare Johnson to one of his favorite former players, one whose sure-handedness was exceeded only by his confidence.

"I don't know if we've had that kind of player [during his tenure with the Ravens]," Billick said. "Qadry was a big-play guy but had a certain inconsistency about him. It rivals, although certainly not at that level ... a Cris Carter level.

"Cris knew he would catch every ball; of course he didn't, but darn near. I haven't had a player since Cris that has that same level of confidence that he will come up with the ball until Kevin."

So if Johnson is so confident and consistent, why is he with his third team in less than a year? Reports out of Cleveland said Johnson was a sulker who complained when the Browns struggled, as well as a prima donna who refused to block on running plays.

"He catches the ball on a consistent basis," said Ravens cornerback Corey Fuller, a teammate of Johnson's for four seasons in Cleveland. "It's not very many receivers in the NFL that are going to block. But I tell K.J.: `Don't run your routes short and block because our running game is big here.' "

With running back Jamal Lewis accounting for 46 percent of the Ravens' total offense last year, coaches wanted to make sure Johnson was on board with the philosophy.

Essentially, they threw Johnson in the deep end and told him swim.

"We've had five plays this preseason where Kevin has had to come and block a linebacker," Shaw said. "He's gone in there and every single time he's done an excellent job. He goes in there, sticks his head in and fights for it. He's been physical."

Johnson's main purpose, though, is to give the Ravens a balanced receiving corps, which the team thought it would have when it signed Frank Sanders and Marcus Robinson last season.

But Sanders had little left in his tank and eventually lost his job to Robinson, who gave the Ravens a deep threat but nothing in the middle of the field, plus a number of drops.

Johnson is the anti-Robinson. What the team will lose in stretching the field, the offense may gain in picking up key first downs from someone who simply can hold onto the ball.

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