QB Josh Johnson has the mobility to escape the pass rush if the Bucs' protection breaks down
When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2009 training camp opened on the first day of August, Byron Leftwich and Luke McCown were battling for the team's starting quarterback job. Rookie passer Josh Freeman was trying to make a late charge and prove that the team's best course of action would be to throw him directly into the fire.
And what, many wondered, was Josh Johnson playing for?
Head Coach Raheem Morris had made it clear that, while keeping four quarterbacks was a possibility, the team preferred to go with three in the regular season. If Leftwich and McCown were to fall into the number-one and number-two slots, in some order, and Freeman was obviously untouchable, what opportunity did that leave for the second-year passer out of the University of San Diego?
The answer could be found in something else Morris said on more than one occasion: In the end, the Bucs would keep their best 53 players. Johnson didn't have to beat the situation; he simply had to prove he was one of those 53. And he did just that, particularly with a very good performance in the preseason finale against Houston.
As much as it looked like there was no room for Johnson, in fact there was no way the Bucs were going to let him get away. In retrospect, that wasn't terribly surprising; after all, the team had carried four quarterbacks throughout the 2008 season in order to keep Johnson, and he had only gotten better since then. The trade of McCown to Jacksonville on September 5 allowed the Bucs to keep Johnson without having to carry four passers this time.
Still, it's one thing to realize that Johnson is a commodity the Bucs were anxious to retain. It's another to see the 23-year-old go from presumptive bubble boy to NFL starter in less than two months.
That's exactly what happened on Monday, when Morris announced that Johnson would be replacing Leftwich in the starting lineup, effective immediately. The move was less stunning than the description above might indicate; an 0-3 start and an anemic offensive performance in Game Three had the Bucs looking for answers, and Johnson had already been installed as the number-two man. And Johnson insisted his head wasn't spinning despite his meteoric rise up the depth chart, all because he had quietly considered himself part of the battle for the starting job all along.
"You've got to believe in yourself, that you can be able to get the job done," he said. "Because the other 10 guys won't rally around you if they don't feel that. That's where it first starts. I knew the preparation that I did and I knew how hard I worked with our coaches and I knew how hard it's been for me just to get where I am right now. I always felt like I could do it. I felt like I could do good as a starting quarterback. So right now my job is to get ready for this Sunday and go out and do it on the field."
At 23, Johnson will be one of the youngest starting quarterbacks in the league, and he is surely far from the cockiest. In the hallways at One Buccaneer Place, he has a thoughtful but unassuming air. He is obviously confident in himself, though, and Morris insists that Johnson's teammates share that confidence. The young passer has already impressed the coaching staff and his fellow Buccaneers with his intense preparation for games, which is actually what led to him opening the season as the active number-two quarterback, a role many expected to go to Freeman.
"Josh Johnson is a guy that I talk about his preparation, how he prepares when he is not the starter because that is the only thing that he has seen," said Morris. "To me, the reason he was number-two to start the season out is because I know what I'm going to get from Josh Johnson whether he is getting every rep at practice or not. It is just like what happened yesterday [against the Giants]. He is going to come out there, execute everything in the game plan, he is going to know everything, he is going to know every protection. He is going to know what the defense is going to look like. He is going to be prepared."
The Bucs believed they were prepared to take on the Giants on Sunday but never could get their offense untracked. When Johnson entered the fray with 9:33 left in the game, the home team had just 35 yards of total offense. Johnson wasn't the savior – he was the first to point out that Leftwich was taking the fall for a bad performance shared by all – but he did produce his team's first sustained drive of the day. Johnson completed four of six passes in leading his team to the five-yard line, and also ran for 15 yards and a big first down early in the march. The drive fizzled at the five with four incompletions, but the offense did appear to have an extra dimension with him on the field.
"He definitely gives you that dynamic, which you all know about," said Morris of Johnson's impressive running ability. "It does help with the offensive line – again no excuses to be made – with the lack of your starting center in there. He creates a different matchup for people. He gives you a better chance to obviously break out of the pocket and make a play with his feet every once in a while, so that's no secret. Those were some of the things that do fit into your decision-making process, without a doubt."
Johnson's combination of foot speed and rocket arm was what made him an intriguing prospect on draft weekend in 2008. Because he played against lesser competition in the FCS subdivision at San Diego, stats such as his 43-1 touchdown-interception ratio as a senior were often discounted. But the Bucs have watched their admittedly raw prospect work tirelessly on his game for the last 17 months and the results may just be a starting-caliber quarterback at the game's highest level. Johnson won't hesitate to use his speed and quickness against the Redskins this weekend, but he's not planning on redefining the position.
"I'm not promising a specific thing," he said. "I'm just going to try to play the game and get us a win. It's obvious I can run around a little bit, I can move around the pocket, I can do things with my feet. But I'm a quarterback also and my overall goal is standing in the pocket and delivering, getting those guys the ball and letting them do what they do best.
"I've seen the talent we have. I've seen it on display numerous days. I know what we're capable of as a team. For me, my job as a quarterback is to put those guys in the right position to make plays. That's all I have to do. If I take that mindset, I feel like we'll be alright."
Because Johnson exhibited such a good grasp of the offense heading into the regular-season opener against Dallas, he was on the receiving end of a bit of praise from his head coach that has been commonly (and perhaps understandably) misinterpreted.
After announcing that Johnson would be the second active quarterback on game day, Morris compared him to the Cowboys' offensive coordinator, Jason Garrett, who was a long-time reserve quarterback and occasional starter for Dallas during his playing days. Morris intended to state that Johnson was, at the least, potentially good enough to have a long and valuable playing career, like Garrett; he was not trying to put a ceiling on the young player as a "career backup." The Buccaneers would like nothing better than to confirm that both of their young Joshes have starting potential.
Johnson doesn't have to worry about that misinterpreted label. He's the starter now, and it is not his primary goal to prove anything to potential doubters.
"It's not about showing guys," he said. "It's about taking advantage of my opportunity. This league is all about opportunities. There have been guys who had an opportunity and took it and ran with it and there have been guys who have not had opportunities [or] didn't take it and run with it. Right now I look at it as my opportunity to become a leader of this team, the starting quarterback, and help us get our first victory of the season."