WR Keyshawn Johnson is potentially the last piece of the puzzle in Tampa
by Andrew Mason, NFL.com
In 1975, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers trumpeted the arrival of a man from USC who was the first piece of the puzzle — head coach John McKay.
Twenty-five years later, another legend in Southern California football lore, wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson, arrives on the west coast of Florida as what the franchise hopes is the last piece of the puzzle. Acquired in a blockbuster April trade with the New York Jets, Johnson immediately becomes the most decorated wideout to ever don a Bucs jersey, in spite of the fact that he merely enters his fifth season.
Evidence of the impact Johnson can have on the offense wasn't any more clear than during the Bucs' preseason win over the New England Patriots on Aug. 20. The Bucs' first-team offense had one sustained offensive drive — and it included three passes to Johnson, two on third downs.
"I'm pretty satisfied with the offense, of course I am," Johnson said. "When we wanted to get the ball to me, they got it to me."
ON THE COMEBACK TRAIL…
As the Bucs made their run to their first NFC Championship Game appearance in two decades, offensive tackle Jason Odom watched from the sidelines. A lower back strain incurred in the Bucs' 13-10 win over the Denver Broncos on Sept. 26 kept him out for the next seven games and forced him onto the injured reserve list on Nov. 24.
The University of Florida product returned to practice on Aug. 22. Unfortunately, his back didn't respond as hoped, and he failed to finish the practice, detouring his road to recovery.
"(The pain) was a progressive thing where I started to get more and more contact," he told the St. Petersburg Times. "It wasn't one particular play. The more I did, the more the pain increased to the point where it wasn't very smart to go on."
Johnson gives Shaun King a prolific target. But Randall McDaniel and Steve Christy, both of whom signed with the Bucs in the first three weeks of the free-agency period, will give King time to locate Johnson. The two first teamed up side-by-side on the Vikings' offensive line in 1994, and in the Pro Bowl the last two seasons.
McDaniel, in his 13th season, will at some point in the coming years hand over the left guard spot to Cosey Coleman, whom the Bucs selected in the second round of this year's draft.
Christy, on the other hand, is 31, and still in his prime as an NFL center, a position that has been the Bucs' most stable over the years. Steve Wilson started from 1976-84, Randy Grimes manned the spot from 1985-91 and Tony Mayberry started there from 1992 to last season. If the Bucs can get that kind of tenure out of Christy, the signing will be a successful one.
Johnson may get all the headlines, but Andre Hastings, signed during training camp, will also provide a much-needed boost to the receiving corps. The former Pittsburgh Steeler and New Orleans Saint arrived in camp on Aug. 3 and immediately helped solidify his place on the roster by his quick study of the Buccaneers playbook.
"When I first got here, there was so much information to digest," Hastings told the St. Petersburg Times. "Now, I know what to do. Even if I make a mistake out there, I know why I made the mistake and sometimes in the process of making the mistake, I say to myself: "Wait, that's not right. I should be over here, not there. … So that's a good situation to be in."
The development of defensive tackle Anthony McFarland, last year's first-round draft pick, was sufficient enough to where the Bucs deemed Brad Culpepper expendable, as he was waived on Aug. 21. Now, instead of rotating in on passing downs, as he did last year, he'll line up as the starter, and will occasionally be relieved by third-year player James Cannida.
"I feel I had a good offseason," McFarland said. "Things were good. I'm confident in my abilities. I think that's the most important thing, and I've always been confident. I'm not scared to make mistakes. You move on and play another play."
5-10-1: The Bucs' record in 1980, the year following their last trip to the NFC Championship Game … 0: The number of teams to play a Super Bowl in their home stadium … 86: The Bucs' single-season record for receptions, set by Mark Carrier in 1989 … 89: Johnson's reception total with the Jets last season … 9: The Bucs' single-season record for receiving touchdowns, set by Carrier in 1989, Bruce Hill in 1988 and Kevin House in 1981 … 10: Johnson's touchdown reception total with the Jets in 1998.
Sunday, Oct. 1: Tampa Bay at Washington. Until Dec. 19, 1998, the Bucs had the Redskins' number; they'd defeated the D.C. denizens four consecutive times. But those mid-1990s games usually involved two struggling teams; this time, it's a rematch of their divisional playoff game of Jan. 15. Bad news for the Bucs: Dan Turk, the long snapper whose errant snap gave the Bucs the playoff win, is no longer a Redskin. Good news for the Bucs: Neither is Brian Mitchell, who scored the 'Skins' only touchdown on a kickoff return.
On Monday night, Dec. 18, the Bucs host the St. Louis Rams in a rematch of their NFC Championship encounter. But the game that could determine the Bucs' postseason standing will come six days later, when the Bucs travel to Green Bay, which is likely to be frigid when they meet the Packers. Not only will the Bucs likely have to win a game with a game-time temperature below 40 degrees, but they'll have to win at Lambeau Field, something they haven't done since Week 1 of 1989.
TO BE ANSWERED…
Is King ready to wear the crown?
King was the toast of the Bay Area in the offseason, not just because he led the Bucs to within five points of the Super Bowl, but because he was the proverbial local boy made good after growing up in Tampa and going to high school in St. Petersburg. Now, though, he's the incumbent quarterback, a position that hasn't exactly been the favorite of the team's fans through the years. Even Doug Williams, generally regarded as the most effective quarterback in franchise history, heard boos and jeers while leading the Bucs to three playoff appearances from 1979-82.
Could the defense slip?
It's a logical question to ask considering that the unit's emotional leader for seven seasons, middle linebacker Hardy Nickerson, took a four-hour trip northeast to Jacksonville and didn't come back. It's even more logical after the release of Culpepper, a locker-room leader.
There's something to be said for the phrase, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," after finishing in the league's top three for three straight seasons and holding the explosive Rams offense to just 11 points in their last outing. But head coach Tony Dungy and defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin feel that the replacements — linebacker Jamie Duncan and McFarland — are up to the task.