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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Proving His Worth

Keyshawn Johnson has done much to justify the expensive 2000 trade that brought him to Tampa, but never more than what he contributed on Sunday


WR Keyshawn Johnson's 93rd catch of the season resulted in his first 2001 touchdown

Stud. Warrior. Clutch guy. Great player.

Pick your description for Keyshawn Johnson. Feel free to use any of the above suggestions, thrown out by Johnson's teammates and opponents Sunday after his career-defining performance gave the Tampa Bay Buccaneers a 15-12 win over Detroit and likely saved their season.

For the record, those above appellations were tossed out by John Lynch, Warren Sapp, Ronde Barber and Marty Mornhinweg, respectively, but it hardly matters who said which. What is important is the picture they combine to paint: a game-changing player, exactly what the Bucs believed they were acquiring in last year's trade.

In April of 2000, the Bucs paid a franchise-player's ransom for Johnson, giving up two first-round draft picks and signing the former number-one pick to a hefty new contract. How fitting. Has any Buccaneer receiver ever had a day this big in the franchise's 26-year history?

Johnson's 10 catches for 101 yards won't rank in the Bucs' single-game top ten by the raw numbers; they weren't even season highs for Johnson himself. But each of the ten catches was seemingly more important than the last, building like a crescendo to his finest moment as a Buccaneer. So far.

"He is the ultimate warrior," said Sapp, the Bucs' nonpareil defensive tackle. "Nothing is going to keep him down on Sunday. He makes plays for us. He has done it all year long, and that's what we pay him for. You can't find a better receiver on Sunday. You have to put the ball in his hands because he does good things for you. It is a monster challenge every week and I think he relishes it like I do."

By the time Johnson did his last good thing of the day, the 13-yard touchdown catch that utilized every inch of his six-foot-four frame, he had already broken the team's receptions record, passed 1,000 yards on the season, surpassed his own single-season career high and caught the second-most important pass of the game, a 15-yarder down to the 13 on fourth-and-eight, moments before touchdown.

"He is a stud," said safety John Lynch, the Buc defender who has made so many of his own game-saving plays this season. "He makes big plays when the game is on the line. It is fitting he scored the touchdown today. He has meant so much to us."

Lynch calls it 'the' touchdown because, as improbable as it was at that moment, it was perhaps the most anticipated score of the season. While setting a receptions pace that is ahead of Herman Moore's 123-catch record season of 1994, Johnson scored nary a single touchdown on his first 92 grabs. This from a man who had averaged eight touchdowns a season through his first five NFL years. The Bucs acquired him in large part because they believed he could consistently seal the deal in the red zone.

Johnson did, in fact, score eight times last season to lead the Buccaneers in his first season in red-and-pewter, but he also finished with 'just' 71 catches, somewhat less than what he or the team expected. Credit new Offensive Coordinator Clyde Christensen for finding a way to fully utilize Johnson's enormous talents.

And credit Johnson for setting aside any possible frustration and making the play when the Bucs needed it most.

"You have to expect him to catch it," said cornerback Ronde Barber, the Bucs' most consistent big-play producer on the other side of the ball. "It had to get done and I expect him to do it. He is a clutch guy. You throw it to him, he is going to grab it."

All of this despite the fact that the Lions almost certainly expected the ball to be thrown to Johnson. Detroit had taken pains to try to limit the NFC's leading receiver all day, but it gambled with a blitz on that final play and Johnson made them pay in man-to-man coverage with cornerback Jimmy Wyrick.

"He's a great player," said Detroit Head Coach Marty Mornhinweg. "We doubled him much of the game, and we did a good job with that. We left him one-on-one some with our blitzing, but I guess it's just ironic."

Ironic, perhaps, or inevitable. It was the determination of which Barber spoke that the Bucs were counting on when they called his number so many crucial situations Sunday. It seemed like just a matter of time until Johnson found the end zone for the Bucs. As it turned out, it was also a matter of timing, perfect timing.

"I had to dig deep," said Johnson, who felt it was his first chance as a Buc to make a game-winning play at the end. "I had to make the play. I knew I was going to get hit as soon as I caught the ball. I'm not trying to save a season, I was trying to save a football game. This was my first time to make a huge impact."

Well, some might disagree with that final thought, but it certainly was his most important moment yet as a Buccaneer. It likely won't be his last game-saving play, because QB Brad Johnson clearly trusts his ability to make something out of nothing.

"Keyshawn ran a corner route," Brad Johnson explained. "I just threw it up. It came at a good time. We always like to spread the ball around to a lot of different guys. Keyshawn plays very physical. He's a winner. Today the coverage took the ball away from him a little bit, but he does a great job of catching the ball in traffic."

And the play from the receiver's end? "I told Brad to hang in there, and give me the opportunity and he did," said Keyshawn. "He hung in there. Then I had to live up to my end of the bargain."

In fact, Johnson has been doing just that for almost two seasons as a Buccaneer. Two first-round picks and a pricey contract may have made it difficult for Johnson to balance the ledger, but he has found a way to do it. On Sunday against the Lions, he found about 10 ways to do it. Much more of this and it might be time to call Johnson a bargain.

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