WR Keyshawn Johnson has 31 receptions through four games and is well on pace to set new team and personal records
After investing two first-round draft picks and a sizeable new contract in wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson last offseason, the Bucs watched their prized new passcatcher put up 71 receptions for 874 yards and eight touchdowns in his Tampa Bay debut season.
Though those numbers were very much in line with his career averages before 2000, and though Johnson was praised for doing everything the coaching staff asked of him, there was a vague feeling of unfulfilled hopes after the season. This may have been due to the Bucs 26th -place standing in the passing offense rankings, or perhaps to the handful of games where Johnson seemed to be a non-factor.
This past offseason, the Buccaneers signed another Johnson, quarterback Brad of Vikings and Redskins fame. The 'Johnson & Johnson' tag lines were inevitable, of course, but there was no guarantee that this pairing of former Pro Bowlers would produce the prolific passing attack Buc fans craved.
Four games into the 2001 season, however, there is strong evidence that they are doing just that. Keyshawn Johnson is in the middle of what may be the most prolific stretch of his career – with the exception of touchdown catches – and he seems to have earned the highest confidence of Brad Johnson, the man distributing the ball.
Keyshawn Johnson started the season with seven catches against Dallas and followed with seven more at Minnesota and another nine against the Packers. His best day yet as a Buccaneer, however, came Sunday in Tennessee.
The Bucs' coaching staff believed the Titans would take extra measures to limit Johnson's output, thereby creating additional opportunities for the other receivers on the field. And, in fact, by halftime, fellow starter Jacquez Green had four catches for 58 yards to Johnson's two for 21.
In the second half, however, the Bucs were in a must-score situation almost every time they got their hands on the ball, and Brad Johnson began looking for his namesake again and again, regardless of the coverage.
In the third quarter, five of the 10 passes Brad Johnson threw were intended for Keyshawn Johnson; two were completed for 53 yards, making up more than half of a 97-yard touchdown drive that ranked as the longest march in team history.
In the fourth quarter, Johnson had an even larger impact, making four catches for 66 yards and drawing a critical pass-interference penalty on the first of two touchdown drives in the last eight minutes.
Twice in the closing minutes of the fourth quarter, the Buccaneers faced do-or-die fourth downs. Both times, Brad Johnson looked for Keyshawn Johnson.
From the Tennessee 36 with 6:52 remaining in the game, the Bucs had to convert a fourth-and-seven to keep the first touchdown drive alive. Brad Johnson drifted slightly right out of the pocket to buy some time and saw Keyshawn Johnson coming across the middle with CB DeRon Jenkins on his hip. The quarterback motioned for the receiver to break it deep, then laid a pass over the top. A confused Jenkins ended up tackling Johnson as he tried to go up for the ball, resulting in a penalty and a first down at the 14.
Five game minutes later, it was fourth-and-ten from the Bucs' 38, with 1:42 remaining and nothing to gain by punting. Brad Johnson had thrown incomplete once to Warrick Dunn and twice to Reidel Anthony, but now he went back to his mainstay, sending Keyshawn Johnson on a quick slant from the left side. The pass was thrown hard enough to get through a maze of cover men and Johnson hauled it in and held on while taking a hard hit at midfield. First down. Two more crossing routes to Johnson, for 19 and 26 yards, set up the game-tying score.
In all, Johnson finished with eight receptions for 140 yards, the highest yardage total by a Buc receiver since midway through the 1999 season (164 by Jacquez Green vs. Kansas City, 11/14/99) and Johnson's personal best since almost that same week (144 vs. Miami, 12/12/99). That output extended Johnson's streak of consecutive games with at least seven catches to four, the longest in his well-regarded career.
It also gave him 31 catches for 389 yards on the season, which should keep him among the league leaders even though many of the other wideouts high on the list have played five games to Johnson's four. Coming into this weekend, Johnson ranked fourth in the NFC with 23 catches, and the three players ahead of him – St. Louis RB Marshall Faulk (31), Carolina WR Muhsin Muhammad (25) and San Francisco WR Terrell Owens (24) – had all played one more game than Johnson.
Since it seems clear that Brad Johnson and Offensive Coordinator Clyde Christensen have figured out how to keep Keyshawn Johnson involved in the offense, and since the Bucs' passing game seems to be getting better week by week, it's reasonable to assume that the former USC standout will continue to put up serious numbers throughout the season.
Extrapolating from his current totals at the one-quarter mark of the season, Johnson is on pace to catch 124 passes for 1,556 yards. That first total would demolish the current Buccaneer record of 86, set by Mark Carrier in 1989, and the second would surpass fairly handily Carrier's 1989 yardage mark of 1,422.
That dramatic of a pace would hardly be necessary to turn Johnson's season into one of the best ever for a Buc receiver. He would need to catch only five balls per game the rest of the way to shoot by Carrier's reception record, and he could become the first 1,000-yard Buc receiver since that fine season by Carrier by racking up just 51 yards per game.
Buccaneer coaches aren't asking Johnson for records, of course. They simply want big catches at clutch moments, and they got more than expected Sunday in Tennessee. Though Tampa Bay's comeback bid against the Titans came up short, the re-emergence of the Bucs' passing game, in the able hands of Johnson and Johnson, looks like it will come to pass.