QB Brad Johnson is preparing for a Dallas defense he calls fast, with unique challenges
Brad Johnson says it's all the same – purple and gold, burgundy and gold, pewter and red.
It doesn't matter what uniform he'll be wearing this Sunday or, for that matter, what his opponents will be wearing. Team rivalries – even one as intense as Washington vs. Dallas – are not what drives him to succeed.
"I try to always look at it as just another team, regardless of rivalries," said Johnson. "I don't really get caught up in that. A lot of times, the rivalry is between the fans, not between the players. When you get guys playing the same team for five years, that's when you build it up. It's a new game for Tampa."
The 'new game' is Dallas, a team that the Buccaneers faced last year for the first time in a decade. Johnson, on the other hand, is a recent participant in that Redskins-Cowboys blood feud, having been Washington's starting quarterback for the better part of the last two seasons. Now he's wearing Buc colors, but he doesn't have any special tips for his teammates on facing the Cowboy mystique.
"I know more about their personnel," said Johnson. "They're a team right now that runs fast. They play a lot of soft coverages, trying to keep things underneath. They don't want to give up the big play. It seems like everyone in the league is trying to go to what Tampa Bay's defense is. They bring a couple of unique blitzes and challenge you in different phases of the game. They're doing a great job on the defensive side of the ball, no doubt about it."
And, perhaps, the Bucs aren't too mystified by Dallas at the moment anyway. Last December's game was a lopsided 27-7 Tampa Bay win in which the Bucs ran for a team-record 250 yards. Of course, that was in Raymond James Stadium; the Buccaneers haven't visited Texas Stadium since 1990.
"Last year when they played them, Tampa had a big day and was playing good at the time," said Johnson. "Dallas was a little bit down and they had some guys that didn't play in that game, some of their veteran leaders, especially on the defensive side of the ball. They might have tanked it a little bit in the second half, but this is opening day. This is one we feel like we've got to get, and I'm sure they feel the same way. It's a different ballgame from year to year and week to week, especially with the new personnel that we have and they have."
Johnson, of course, is the main chunk of that new Buc personnel, having been signed in March to take over the reins of the offense. As the starter, his time on the field in the preseason was somewhat limited, but the first-team offense looked sharp in the only game in which it played extensively, a 20-3 win over New England on August 25. Johnson also moved the offense effectively in a very short stint last Friday in Atlanta.
"I feel like we came along at a good pace," he said. "It probably wasn't on par with what a lot of people's expectations are, but we put a lot of offense in. We got a lot accomplished and (got ready for) the things we're going to face throughout the season, different defenses and different coverages. We stayed pretty base with the offense and have a good foundation."
What the Bucs did not do with regularity during August was score. Even when the first unit moved the ball down the field well, turnovers short-circuited several scoring chances. Still, Johnson saw enough from his group to see the potential for a lot of points.
"I went through three or four different situations very similar to that in Minnesota and Washington," he said. "We didn't score a lot of points but ended up having the number-one points scored of all time (in Minnesota in 1998) and the number-two offense in Washington (in 1999).
"What you want to see is being able to make some drives and big guys being able to make plays. We got progressively better as far as taking away the penalties and simple mistakes. That's what will cost you ballgames and that's what cost us games in the preseason. We've gotten much better and we don't have a long way to go.
"What I see is a lot of communication between players, guys making an extra block downfield, and just being able to make plays. You want to see the potential to be able to get better, and that's what I see with this team."
And there is, of course, the issue of holding your cards close to the vest in the preseason. The less instructive video you can provide your opening-day opponent, the better. In the Bucs' case, the offense has displayed much of what it's going to do, but not necessarily in the exact way it is going to do it.
"We've run a lot of stuff, but we've held back in different phases," said Johnson. "The biggest thing you do is change up your personnel and your protections. It's different ways to get to different plays. You may have one particular play, but there's 15 different ways to get to it. That's the biggest deal here, being able to adjust and give different looks."
How well the Bucs can do that may set the tone for the rest of the season, offensively. The Bucs set a team record by scoring 388 points last year, but weren't happy with the consistency of the team's attack. We won't know if a Johnson-led unit is better in that department until a few months into the season, but a hot start would certainly build confidence.
Thus, it's a big game for Johnson, regardless of the star on the opponents' helmets or the color of his own uniform.
"It's a big challenge for us," he said. "A win's a win and a loss is a loss and they all add up at the end of the season. One game isn't more important than the other. This is one that we feel like we have to go out and get and establish where we're going to be at for the rest of the season."