Johnson emerges as leader
Published: Wednesday, January 15, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 14, 2003 at 10:58 p.m.
TAMPA - Brad Johnson looks around the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' locker room and sees one of the biggest collection of stars in the NFL.
NFC title game
AFC title game
There are five All-Pros, four Pro Bowl starters and eight others who have made at least one trip to Hawaii for the season-ending all-star game, including the 34-year-old Johnson.
The Bucs quarterback may be the least heralded among a group including Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks, Keyshawn Johnson, John Lynch, Simeon Rice and Mike Alstott. But his performance is one of the biggest reasons Tampa Bay is in the NFC championship game against the Philadelphia Eagles.
''I think the big thing in this league is that you always want to give your team a chance to win. Hopefully the guys around you will feed off of that,'' Johnson said.
''Guys play hard, guys make plays, and guys believe, regardless of the situation. I think we have caught on to that.''
Teammates talk about Johnson's passion for preparation and determination on the field, and coach Jon Gruden lauds his toughness. The Bucs won two of the three games Johnson didn't start because of injury, but no one doubts they're a much better team with him in the lineup.
That includes the Eagles.
''He's been there and he's done that. He knows what coach Gruden is trying to accomplish,'' cornerback Troy Vincent said. ''He knows where the ball needs to be and he's going to make the right call. We're going to have to get after him.''
Tampa Bay's offense made significant strides the second half of the season as Johnson and others became more comfortable with Gruden's West Coast system. The 11th-year pro has thrown for 18 touchdowns and just two interceptions in his last seven games, including a two-TD, one-interception performance in last week's playoff victory over San Francisco.
''When you look at his football card, he's played very productively every place that he's played. He had some big years with Brian Billick in Minnesota, had some big years with Norv Turner in Washington,'' Gruden said. ''I was very confident he would would be more than able to run this system. He's just a really good quarterback, and hopefully he starts to get some of the credit that maybe he deserves.''
Johnson completed 62 percent of his passes for 3,049 yards, a club-record 22 TDs and only six interceptions during the regular season, becoming the first Tampa Bay quarterback to finish as the NFC's top-rated passer.
That wasn't enough to get him to the Pro Bowl, though, and the Bucs' No. 1-ranked defense is partly to blame.
Sapp, Brooks and Co. carried the team early in the season, creating the perception that the Bucs were still a team that couldn't count on its offense to win games. Tampa Bay was held to 207 yards in a 20-10 loss to the Eagles on Oct. 20, but has gradually come on since.
''We were still trying to figure out how to call plays in the huddle,'' Johnson said of the first Philadelphia game, Tampa Bay's fourth consecutive loss to the Eagles - a streak that includes first-round playoff defeats at Veterans Stadium the past two years.
''We said at the beginning of the season we planned on taking off during week 11, week 12. And we started to hit off during week six or seven, actually. We had eight new starters on offense and we were just trying to get plays called right in the huddle. ... As the season went on, we kind of grew together.''
Johnson missed the last two regular-season games with a severe lower back bruise. In the six weeks leading up to the injury, the Bucs averaged 27 points. Without him, they scored seven in a loss to Pittsburgh and had five field goals in a victory over Chicago.
One of the keys Sunday will be whether Tampa Bay's improving offensive line can keep the Eagles' pass rush off Johnson, who was 19-of-31 for 124 yards and one interception before leaving in the fourth quarter of the Oct. 20 game with a cracked rib. Philadelphia sacked Johnson five times and got to backup Rob Johnson once.
Philadelphia's defense ranked fourth in the league and allowed the second-fewest points. It also has four Pro Bowl players.
''Those guys are good, no question about it,'' Eagles middle linebacker Levon Kirkland said. ''They have some players who have been absolutely terrific this year. They proved it on the field. But we're going to go out there and do our thing and not worry about who's rated where. Stats don't really matter. The only thing that counts is who wins the game.''
The Eagles (13-4) play the Buccaneers (13-4) in the NFC championship game Sunday at Veterans Stadium. Philadelphia has won the last four meetings, including playoff victories the last two seasons.
In the two playoff games and a victory earlier this season, the Eagles' defense outplayed Tampa's. The Bucs' offense has just five field goals in the three games.
''We're self-motivated,'' linebacker Shawn Barber said. ''The guys on this defense have a will to stop people from getting into the end zone and so far, we've been pretty good at it. I'm sure those guys feel the same way. But we're out there to stop their offense, not beat their defense.''
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