Josh Johnson was the last quarterback to start a regular-season game for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers before Josh Freeman took over midway through his rookie season two years ago. Ten years down the road, if Freeman continues to develop into the long-term answer the franchise fully believes he is, that could make Johnson the answer to an interesting trivia question.
Right now, though, the Buccaneers may need Johnson to be much more than that.
Freeman was limited on the practice field Thursday for the second straight day and essentially only threw a handful of soft passes during the morning walk-through. He is trying to overcome a shoulder injury suffered on the final play of last Sunday's game in Tennessee; if he isn't able to do so by Sunday, Johnson will make his fifth career start.
Fortunately, the Buccaneers are very confident in Johnson and see him as much more than a footnote to another player's career. As much as they want Freeman to be the franchise quarterback for a franchise that has essentially never had one, they also want Johnson to be part of the answer, and this week is a perfect illustration as to why.
"We feel very comfortable with Josh Johnson," said Offensive Coordinator Greg Olson. "We would love to have that guy around here a long time. We have voiced that. We have that kind of confidence in him. He really prepares very well. He takes his job very serious and again we have a tremendous amount of confidence as a staff and I know that locker room does too."
Actually, the Bucs have been displaying that confidence in Johnson for years. The former small-school standout from the University of San Diego was seen as something of a project when he arrived as a fourth-round draft pick in 2008, and when the Bucs drafted Freeman and added veteran Byron Leftwich the following offseason it looked like Johnson could be squeezed out. Instead, the Bucs traded another veteran, Luke McCown, to the Jacksonville Jaguars in order to keep Johnson around as Leftwich started and Freeman learned.
And thus it was that Johnson actually found himself as the starter four games into the 2009 season, after a three-game stint with Leftwich under center led to an 0-3 start. Johnson got four starts for a team in transition before relinquishing the reins to Freeman when the loss streak stretched to seven. Freeman was an immediate hit and followed with an outstanding 2010 campaign, but the Bucs have held on to Johnson as his immediate backup ever since. Two years later, the team believes his added experience will make him even more effective as the starter, if needed.
"Josh has been around here for four years and he's matured quite a bit," said Head Coach Raheem Morris. "Being around him four years I've always had a great appreciation for the way he prepares and the way he practices. Obviously we are pulling for Josh Freeman and we feel good about the progress he made from yesterday to today, but if not we have a tremendous amount of confidence in Josh Johnson and the game plan that he will execute."
Olson pointed out that Johnson has made a practice of standing 10 yards behind Freeman during every practice snap and pantomiming his way through the same motions as the starter. He's considered a very intelligent player and no one has ever doubted his arm strength or his complementary running ability. This could be Johnson's opportunity to put it all together, and he says he's ready, more so than he was as an inexperienced second-year player.
"It's just understanding the plan of what we want to do, how we want to attack, being able to be ready for all different types of situations in a game," he said. "I haven't got the physical reps to get totally comfortable with the game but I feel like I can come out this week and get us going, get it going and get into the flow of the game and see what happens after that.
"I feel excited. I feel real excited to get back out there and play a whole four-quarter game, if the opportunity presents itself. I'm interested to see how it goes. I've been working hard the past two years for an opportunity like this and I'm just trying to get out there and execute the game plan that Olie's preparing and try to help us get a victory."
Even as the backup, Johnson said he routinely discusses the game plan and the team's preparations with his teammates, and he believes they have trust in him. Olson sees the same thing in the locker room.
"I think every year he has gotten better in terms of his accuracy and his anticipation, his overall knowledge and as [Morris] said, his maturity," said Olson. "I know the locker room has a tremendous amount of trust in him and it's just the matter of him getting the chance to go out there and play. I think he is excited about the opportunity and I think some of the guys are excited that he may have an opportunity to play."
Even though Freeman has started the last 36 games, Johnson has seen the occasional game snap here and there, and not in a mop-up role. Rather, the team has developed a package of plays for Johnson that is often compared to the "Wildcat" scheme Miami popularized several years ago. Johnson is much more of a rushing threat than the average NFL quarterback, so that portion of the playbook could be utilized a bit more on Sunday if Freeman is unable to start.
"We've been running that so teams have film on it," said Johnson. "It's just now if I'm in there as the full-time quarterback it can be different scenarios of the game and maybe we can sneak one of those in there and they might not be as prepared for it if I was just coming in for one play. [But] in the preseason and other times we share game plans. Olie calls the same plays. Everything that Free does I feel like we can execute if I'm in there, and take it from there."
Johnson said he is tempering his excitement about a possible start during this week's preparation because he knows that Freeman is doing whatever he can to get ready for the game. The decision likely will go down to the wire, but Johnson won't be surprised in the end if he is once again in a reserve role.
"You never know with Free," he said. "I've seen him play through a lot of injuries and be a warrior. I'm just trying not to get too high or too low, just trying to play even-keel and be ready if they call upon me. I know how Josh is. I've been around him three years. I know what type of guy he is and how much he loves to be out there and how he will do everything possible to get out there. It's just being ready if called upon. It's a typical type of week for me."
The Buccaneers did get a few players back on Thursday from what was a somewhat prohibitive injury report to start the week. Three defenders who sat out on Wednesday clearly made progress on their off day as they were able to return to full participation on Thursday: defensive end Adrian Clayborn and linebackers Adam Hayward and Dekoda Watson.
Clayborn, who is working through a back ailment, is the one starter in that group and his return helped a defensive line that was seriously thinned out on Wednesday. Clayborn has started every game this season and is the team's leading sack collector, with five, but he was one of three current D-Line starters who sat out on Wednesday.
The other two, left end Michael Bennett and defensive tackle Brian Price, were still sidelined on Thursday, though Morris said there were some positive signs regarding the ankle that Price injured in Tennessee last Sunday. And, of course, Price has already shown impressive toughness this year by overcoming a pair of very serious leg injuries during the offseason.
"[He] did not practice today, didn't participate," said Morris. "I'm still hopeful. We got some better news about him, things of that nature, so we'll just have to see tomorrow, see where he is. I'll be able to talk to Todd [Toriscelli] the trainer a little bit more, get some more information on some of these guys and see what they can do."
The fourth current starter on Tampa Bay's defensive front, Albert Haynesworth, did practice on Wednesday but he was held out on Thursday due to his knee ailment. However, Morris has indicated in previous weeks that he would likely keep the veteran linemen on the same sort of schedule he uses for tight end Kellen Winslow, using them only on Wednesday or Thursday but not both. For Winslow, the pattern was reversed – he stayed out on Wednesday but returned to full-go on Thursday and was removed from the injury report.
The Panthers' injury report is considerably slimmer, with only three names listed and only one of them a starter. Starting weakside linebacker Omar Gaither has been limited for both days of Carolina's practice so far due to a knee injury. Reserve linebacker Jason Phillips and backup wide receiver Kealoha Pilares have yet to practice this week due to calf and quad injuries, respectively.
Still Time to Vote for the Pro Bowl
On Thursday, the NFL released an update of its top online vote-getters in the Pro Bowl balloting, and one thing is clear: It's good to be undefeated.
Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers leads all players (as of Wednesday night) with 961,818 votes cast on NFL.com, not surprising given that he's considered the leading candidate for league MVP. The National Football League has a unique manner of selecting its all-stars, as the vote is split into equal thirds between ballots cast by players, fans and coaches. Fan voting began on the league's official web site in October and will continue through Monday, December 19. Player and coach voting results will then be added and the AFC and NFC Pro Bowl teams will be announced on Tuesday, December 27.
As usual, offensive players in general and quarterbacks in particular have dominated the fan voting. After Rodgers, the top 10 vote-getters are New England QB Tom Brady, Detroit wide receiver Calvin Johnson, New England wide receiver Wes Welker, Minnesota running back Adrian Peterson, New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees, Green Bay wide receiver Greg Jennings, Pittsburgh wide receiver Mike Wallace, Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and Chicago running back Matt Forte.
There's another trend in the fan voting that is even stronger this year, however, and it's apparent in the accompanying list of the top vote-getters at each position so far. There are 19 positions on the list for each conference, and as of Wednesday, a Green Bay player had the lead at 10 of those spots.
The Packers, of course, must be getting excellent play from many different positions in order to be standing alone at 11-0. Still, there across-the-board dominance of the fan voting so far is an indication of how consistent winning can bring out the fan vote.
The Buccaneers, at 4-7, are obviously not getting that boost, but may still have players worthy of making it to the Pro Bowl this year. Left tackle Donald Penn made it to Hawaii last year, while right guard Davin Joseph and cornerback Ronde Barber went in 2008. Tight end Kellen Winslow is also a former Pro Bowler, having earned that honor with Cleveland after the 2007 season.
Perhaps one of the those former all-stars can make it back in 2011, or another young Buccaneer will make his breakthrough to the game, as Penn did last year. Buccaneer fans can help out by going to the voting page on NFL.com and casting their votes. Less than three weeks of balloting remains.