Former Buccaneer QB Brad Johnson sees a lot he recognizes in the way Tampa Bay's defense is currently playing
The halls of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' headquarters are adorned with larger-than-life framed pictures from great games in club history. More than a few of them feature Brad Johnson, the quarterback who helped lead the team to the Super Bowl XXXVII title.
On Sunday, the Bucs will see much more than a snapshot of Johnson – they'll see the real life version of the 40-year-old quarterback as he lines up under center for the Dallas Cowboys. Johnson is currently the Cowboys team's starter, with star passer Tony Romo out with a broken finger.
Really, it's a trip down memory lane for both sides, the Buccaneers and Johnson. However, the 17th-year veteran says he's doing his best to approach Sunday's contest like any other game.
"When we won the Super Bowl, it was an awesome feat, and the further you are away from it, the more you appreciate it, even to this day," Johnson said. "So that is something that we will get to live with forever. I have faced teams I have been with before – Tampa playing Minnesota, or Tampa playing Washington, Minnesota playing Washington – so I have kind of gone through those emotions of those games.
"I have been away from Tampa now for almost four years and I am really just looking forward to playing the game, not really [getting] caught up in the emotions of a different team I have played for. The players I played with really aren't there, as a whole, anymore. But I do have a lot of respect for the coaches that I played for and what we did accomplish down there."
The one coach Johnson shares an especially close bond with is the head man, Jon Gruden.
"I really enjoyed playing for Jon," said Johnson. "I learned a lot of football, had some great times. He puts a lot on you as far as the run game and the pass audibles. But every day he is going to keep you entertained. You aren't going to fall asleep in meetings, and you are going to get better. I enjoyed my time there with him, but that is part of playing the quarterback position, especially for him. He is going to put a lot on you and you have to be able to embrace it. He has won a lot of football games with a lot of different quarterbacks, in Oakland and in Tampa. When someone gets a chance to play for him, I think it is a great opportunity."
For Gruden, Sunday's game in Dallas will also be a great reunion, at least until the whistle blows.
"I love that guy," Gruden said of his former quarterback. "I've texted him and talked to him a few times periodically. We've stayed in touch over the years. He's special to me and he always will be. Very special. He's a world champion and I wish him the best. He's a stud. It will be great to see Brad again. A great Buccaneer."
Although Johnson was correct in that most of his teammates from the Bucs' title team are no longer with the club, there are two very big exceptions – longtime veterans Derrick Brooks and Ronde Barber.
Even though he'll be staring across the line of scrimmage at them as opponents on Sunday, Johnson said he still holds a great deal of appreciation for his former teammates and those two long-time defensive stars.
"There is great respect there, great friendship there," Johnson. "Obviously, with Derrick we were together in school at Florida State and then played against each other for many years, and Ronde the same way. They are still getting it done. It is amazing what they have been able to do over time and be consistent. You really see how great they are still playing. I appreciated them when I played with them and respect them even that much more when we try to do film study and try to break them down."
Putting aside all the reunion storylines as Johnson re-connects with his former franchise, there is a critically important game to be played on the field at Texas Stadium on Sunday.
The Cowboys started off the season hot, winning three straight to raise their profile as Super Bowl contenders. But since then Dallas has lost three of four and has been bitten by the injury bug, leading to Johnson's insertion into the starting lineup last week against the Rams.
Johnson struggled, going 17-of-34 for 234 yards with one touchdown and three interceptions, as the Rams stunned the Cowboys, 34-14. With another opportunity as the starting quarterback awaiting, Johnson is prepared to minimize the mistakes that plagued the Cowboys in Week Seven against a tough Tampa Bay defense with which he is quite familiar.
"Last week we didn't play very well across the board," Johnson said. "We really struggled, especially on first downs. When you look at our third down conversions, we were third-and-eight, third-and-10, third-and-12 most of the day, so it is tough living. We had a couple of turnovers early in the game and the game got out of hand real fast. We just had a hard time recovering from it. We struggled, I struggled, the whole bit. We were just playing catch-up ball the whole way.
"Hopefully this week we can stay away from some of the pre-snap penalties and turnovers and give ourselves a chance. Tampa is playing great ball right now, pretty much as always, getting off the field on three-and-outs and creating a bunch of turnovers and scoring with them. They have changed a little bit. [Defensive Coordinator] Monte [Kiffin] has kind of gone to the laboratory and added a few new things, a few new wrinkles over the years, especially the last year-and-a-half. It is a little bit different than what it was when I was there as a whole, but the components are there. They have guys flying around, making plays and they look like the Bucs of old."
As tough as it may be to get back on the winning track against a Bucs defense that has been stellar so far in 2008, the key for Dallas may come down to Johnson's ability to manage the game.
With a plethora of stars on the offensive side of the ball at Johnson's disposal, including wide receivers Terrell Owens and Roy Williams, tight end Jason Witten and running back Marion Barber, the Cowboys' success may come down to tailoring the offense to Johnson's strengths – limiting mistakes and getting the ball to his playmakers to keep the chains moving.
"Tony is more of a creative kind of player," Johnson said. "What I have done is I am a pocket guy and I try to get completions and move the chains and take my shots when I get them. I have had success doing that and there are different ways to do it, from Tony's style to everybody throughout the whole league. The name of the game is stay ahead of the run down and get yourself down to second-and-medium, third-and-short and be able to take care of the ball and score down in the red zone. It takes everyone as a whole but that is what we have to do."
Despite the fond memories that exist between Johnson and his former club, Sunday's matchup will feature two teams fighting for an extremely important win at the halfway point of the season.
For Johnson, it'll be a chance to help stem the tide until Romo returns, get the Cowboys back on track, and potentially earn a small piece of yet another team's legacy.