New Bucs quarterback Brad Johnson told local listeners that he felt his best opportunity to win a championship was in Tampa Bay
For the first time in 14 years, Brad Johnson had a choice, an opportunity to steer the moving vans himself. Not since the All-American prep star turned in his eight football and basketball letters at Black Mountain High in Owen, North Carolina and graduated to Florida State, the college of his choice, has he been in this situation.
He was drafted by Minnesota in the ninth round in 1992; with today's seven-round draft, he likely would have had his choice of teams as a free agent. By the time he had emerged as a star with the Vikings, he was under contract through several more seasons. In 1999, that contract, and Brad and wife Nikki, were shipped to Washington.
Now, in the early days of March after two seasons with the Redskins, Johnson was free to pick his own dance partner in the free agency game. Not so you'd notice, of course. The strongly held conventional wisdom was that he would quickly reunite with former Vikings offensive coordinator Brian Billick in Baltimore.
Johnson wasn't necessarily opposed to the idea, but he had alternate thoughts banging around in his head. One was the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, back in Florida, where another former Viking friend, Tony Dungy was head coach, where there was a star receiver and a pair of Pro Bowl running backs and a defense he had grown to fear, where two former Viking stalwarts played on the offensive line.
So when the Bucs called first thing on Friday, just as the free agency gates were swinging open, Johnson smiled. He hadn't known if they would call. Over the next few hours, it would become clear that both sides were motivated to make this connection happen. Johnson didn't have to listen to the Bucs' needs – he had a very nice offer waiting in Baltimore and probably another one on the way from Kansas City. The Bucs didn't have to court Johnson – they were publicly and privately quite comfortable with Shaun King.
"I wouldn't have told you on Friday morning that I thought Brad Johnson would be a Buccaneer at this time," said Rich McKay. "It's a process that evolved pretty quickly and one in which I don't think we anticipated the result, just because of everything we had read and heard. We were a little uncertain of Brad's motivations. I think the deal unfolded in such a way where Brad was willing to work with us on the structure of a contract to fit what we do from a salary cap standpoint, and we were willing to come towards him in a direction where the money made sense."
Indications are that Johnson left some money on the table when he chose the Buccaneers, who were likely not the highest bidders. How much? Well, that's not likely to be quantified by anyone involved, largely because Johnson did receive a very formidable contract, one for which he is obviously thankful.
"At this point in my career … it's easy to say, but it wasn't about the money, it wasn't about the personal stats," said Johnson. "It's just about winning the championship. There's no greater feeling than winning a ballgame, going home and getting ready for the next win and trying to win another game. I just want to win ballgames, have fun and hopefully win a championship along the way."
No, the numbers that seemed to mean more to Johnson than those that graced the final deal were the ones he already knew coming into the negotiations. The ones stitched on the back of Warren Sapp's jersey, and Derrick Brooks', and John Lynch's.
"I guess I can finally sleep now, because my nightmares of facing number 99 and 55 and 47 (are over)," said Johnson, in his first words to the assembled Tampa Bay press on Tuesday. "Now I'm playing on the same team as those guys. And lacing it up with number 62 and 64, Jeff Christy and Randall McDaniel, is something special to me."
Ten of the Buccaneers' projected starters for 2001 (including kickers) have been to the Pro Bowl in the last two seasons, including all of the number-bearers listed by Johnson above. That's a remarkable array of talent for this franchise, perhaps the greatest one in team history.
And the Bucs have done it without destroying their salary cap maneuverability, through the shrewd workings of McKay's mind. With Johnson, for instance, the Bucs got their man without concocting a contract that will bind them down the road. McKay always considers at least three years worth of salary cap repercussions before making a deal. It is part of the formula the team believes will lead to victories year after year.
"For me to have success, I wanted to be a part of an organization that was the total package," said Johnson. "From the top down, this is a place that is very committed to winning and has shown that to the individual players throughout their careers."
Despite the obvious fact that the Super Bowl Champion Baltimore Ravens are a franchise to be admired, Johnson felt that the Bucs were the perfect fit.
"I know there were a lot of things that were assumed," he said. "For one part of me, it was the hardest decision of my life. For the other part, it was the easiest decision of my life. This is where my future is.
"(Baltimore) was the most logical assumption at that time. But I didn't want to let my emotions or my ego get involved too far. Knowing Tony, I couldn't go wrong. Everyone who's ever played here always speaks highly of the organization, of Tony and of what they are trying to accomplish.
"There were a lot of places I could have gone, but I think this is a place that has been so close. Hopefully, I can help raise the level of play of players around me, and I have to increase my level of play to get where we want to go. There's a lot of work in front of us."
Johnson pointed out that he knows not one page of the Bucs' playbook (though Offensive Coordinator Clyde Christensen later admitted that he's only about 50 pages ahead of Johnson). He hasn't had a chance to set up any throwing sessions with Johnson, Jacquez Green or Reidel Anthony. He's not even quite sure of the path from the training room to the locker room. But he knows those numbers, the ones on the Bucs' roster.
He was asked specifically, of course, about number 19.
"Obviously, Keyshawn (Johnson)'s a tremendous player," said the man charged with getting him the ball. "Again, I think it was the total (team) package, having a defense, having special teams, having a great kicker. Offensively, it's loaded with a lot of weapons, not only a tremendous line but the guys coming out of the backfield. You have receivers that can move around and play a lot of different positions and make plays for you. I want to raise the level of Keyshawn's play, and he can raise my level of play. I think we can make each other and make the team better. Obviously, he was a big attraction for me."
In the end, Johnson didn't choose Baltimore, but he hopes he chose a similar destiny.
"The goal in this league is to win the Super Bowl," said Johnson. "There's only one team in the league that was happy last year, and that was Baltimore. Everyone else is trying to step up and make the new moves to reach that level.
"Over the last three years, you've seen some big changes in Indianapolis, Baltimore and St. Louis. They went from losing teams, losing organizations, to the Super Bowl champs or close to it. Last year, we didn't achieve those goals or high expectations (in Washington). There will be high expectations here.
"I feel like what doesn't kill you makes you stronger, and I'm a stronger person, a stronger quarterback, for the things I went through. I try to learn from each year, each game and hopefully improve through time."