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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Quite a Catch

A closer look suggests that the trade for Keyshawn Johnson is a rare and important acquisition


The arrival of Keyshawn Johnson (right), could be a boost to Reidel Anthony's career

With the proliferation of the passing game in the National Football League over the past several decades, 80-catch seasons have become increasingly common. There were 103 such individual seasons in the NFL in the 1990s, as compared to just 48 in the 1980s.

At the same time, the NFL free agency system that came to life in the 1990s has greatly increased player movement of all kinds. While the free market has become a reality for hundreds of players, salary cap restrictions have also led to a variety of unanticipated cuts and trades.

So, it comes as a mild surprise that, before the Buccaneers traded for Pro Bowl wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson in April, only eight players in league history had rung up at least 80 receptions one year and been snared by an eager new team the next season. One of those, St. Louis' Marshall Faulk, was a running back.

The seven receivers on the list are an unusual group, not necessarily dominated by recognized stars of Johnson's level. The first player to switch teams after an 80-catch campaign was San Diego's John Jefferson, who had 82 receptions for 1,340 yards and 13 touchdowns for the Chargers in 1980, then went to the Green Bay Packers in 1981 for the final two years of his career. The list then continues on through Drew Hill (Houston '91 to Atlanta '92), Anthony Miller (San Diego '93 to Denver '94), Andre Rison (Atlanta '94 to Cleveland '95), Quinn Early (New Orleans '95 to Buffalo '96), Jeff Graham (Chicago '95 to the New York Jets '96) and Brett Perriman (Detroit '96 to Kansas City '97, though he finished the 1997 season in Miami).

Johnson tallied 89 receptions for the New York Jets in 1999 but will be a Buccaneer in 2000 after Tampa Bay sent two first-round draft picks up the East Coast to land the marquee wideout on April 12. He joins Jefferson as the only two players ever to be traded after a season in which they hauled in at least 80 passes. The parallels end there, however, as Jefferson, originally a 12th-round draft choice, had already played 12 NFL seasons and was headed to a team that went 5-10-1 the year before. Johnson, by contrast, was the first overall pick in the 1996 draft, is heading into just his fifth NFL campaign and is joining a Buccaneer team that went 11-5 during the 1999 regular season and came within a few minutes of Super Bowl XXXIV.

Of the remaining players on that short list above, the only terribly close parallel to Johnson's situation is that of Rison, who caught 81 passes for 1088 yards and eight touchdowns for the Falcons in 1994 then signed as an unrestricted free agent with the Cleveland Browns in 1995. Rison was also a first-round draft pick in 1989, though he and Johnson are rarely compared. Like the Bucs, the '95 Browns had compiled an 11-5 record the year before, had proven to be better at running and defending the ball than throwing it, and had been serious contenders in the playoffs.

Buccaneer fans enjoying this comparison may want to skip to the next paragraph. The Browns' plans failed as the team dipped to 5-11 in 1995, their last year in Cleveland.

Rison also caught only 47 passes for the Browns in 1995; in fact, none of the seven receivers before Johnson in the above list matched their previous catch totals with their new teams. However, the Browns did improve from 19th to 14th in passing and Rison's presence surely helped in the sudden emergence of Keenan McCardell. McCardell went from a 10-catch season in 1994 to 56 alongside Rison, and he remains a very productive NFL wideout to this day, averaging 78 receptions per season over the last four years in Jacksonville. While Buccaneer fans are hoping for a significant rise in the team's number-30 ranking in passing offense in 1999, they may also find Johnson's presence to be a boost to the careers of such young Buc passcatchers as Reidel Anthony and Jacquez Green.

Johnson's career path – 63 catches in 1996, 70 in '97, 83 in '98, 89 last year – indicates that he may be the first in this group to at some point surpass his high mark with his previous team, though the Buccaneers' offense is likely to remain focused on the running game. Even so, his 89 grabs last year make him the second-most prolific receiver ever to switch teams, trailing only Perriman, who had 94 receptions for the Lions in 1996. Perriman, however, participated only sparingly for the Chiefs and Dolphins in 1997, had knee surgery that season and has not played in the league since.

Further separating the Johnson deal from the previous NFL examples is that Miller, Perriman, Rison, Early, Graham and Hill all used free agency to make their moves (Hill was a 'Plan B' free agent shortly before the new collective bargaining agreement went into effect in 1993). There are not, as it turns out, any perfect matches for the Bucs' trade for Johnson, and thus no reliable blueprint for what the team might expect. One thing that the comparisons make clear, however, is that the acquisition of a player of Johnson's rank is a very rare opportunity indeed.

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