Second-year QB Josh Johnson has seen the game slow down before his eyes since his rookie campaign
Josh Johnson waves his hands in front of his face and makes shoosh-shoosh-shoosh sounds, as if he is standing next to a freeway watching the cars whiz by.
The scene in Johnson's head isn't traffic, however. Well, it isn't automobile traffic, at least. In this case, the speeding bodies are NFL defenders, whipping in and out of his field of vision as he thinks back to the mental challenges of his rookie season.
Johnson, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' second-year quarterback, didn't play a snap of regular-season football in his first NFL tour, what he calls a "red-shirt" year. But he was worked hard during practices and in preseason games, and he got a very good look at what the next level was all about. As a talented but green passer who piled up huge numbers at a small school (San Diego), he knew there was a steep learning curve in front of him when he first reported to the Buccaneers last May.
Less than a year after the Bucs tapped him in the fifth round of the 2008 draft, Johnson is visibly more confident and assured. And it's no longer rush hour in his head; Johnson now says he can see the breaks in traffic much more clearly.
"You still have to think, but the game's not as fast as it was last year," said Johnson, near the conclusion of last week's mini-camp at One Buccaneer Place. The game is obviously fast because there are a lot of great athletes on the field, but now I understand what's going on. I understand defenses better, I understand looks. You kind of settle in and you can let your natural ability take over. That's what I'm trying to do."
It doesn't hurt that the Buccaneers, under a new coaching staff, are dedicated to finding out if Johnson can be a starting quarterback in the NFL. Last year, he was fourth on a rare four-man regular-season depth chart, watching starter Jeff Garcia and knowing that Plans B1 and B2 were Brian Griese and Luke McCown.
Now Garcia is with the Oakland Raiders and the Bucs' starting spot under center in 2009 is a true competition. That's good news for both McCown and Johnson, and while Griese is the most experienced of the three, he was also not in attendance last week. That's no knock on Griese – he stayed home from the voluntary camp to be with his wife, Brook, who is eight months pregnant – but it was definitely an opportunity for the two young passers. Punter Josh Bidwell and various coaches helped out with the tosses during certain drills, but Johnson and McCown split the bulk of the passes down the middle.
Johnson estimated after the first day of practice that he and McCown threw about 100 passes each, which is quite a bit for one day. Johnson's reaction to any concern about overwork: "We've got ice. I believe we'll be alright."
Seriously, Johnson wouldn't have wanted it any other way.
"I feel like it's a great opportunity for me and Luke. [That] was great for us, because the more reps, the better you're going to get. That's going to allow us to be the best quarterbacks that we can be."
Johnson is feeling much more comfortable in the flow of the game even though the Bucs have new systems on both sides of the ball. He's learning how to direct a new style of rushing attack and also finding out that Tampa Bay's new defense has some very aggressive tendencies. Offensive Coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski was satisfied with Johnson's progress during the team's first organized work on the field.
"He's a young guy," said Jagodzinski. "For him to just start, and hearing terminology for the first time – I mean, it's new to all of us now – and learning the terminology for the first time, sometimes there's just a lot of stuff to process. It's a lot of stuff to process for, really, everybody. He got better from the first practice to the practice we had [the next day]."
Johnson believes the work he has put in over the last 10 months, even if it was in a different system, has him much more prepared to jump into action this spring.
"The thing about this league: Once you learn one [system], you just have to transfer what you already learned – the terminology of it, how that coach wants to do it – but you understand the concepts and things. That's the benefit of having one year under my belt: I learned a lot of concepts, I learned a lot of defenses, I learned how to prepare. That's allowing this to be a smoother transition for me."
The Bucs' staff wasn't overly aggressive in installing the new offensive system during that first mini-camp. A foundation was put in place, with a little bit added each day. It may have been a bit simplified, but it was also relatively sharp, according to the end-of-day assessments of Head Coach Raheem Morris on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.
"They've done some good things," said Morris of both Johnson and McCown. "There are a lot of things that you can improve; Josh threw a nice duck over there on one of those fade balls. But it's definitely getting better, they're definitely giving their receivers a chance to catch balls, and I'm liking it."
Johnson admits that he was "pumped" last week to begin practicing as a more seasoned passer, with the traffic slowing down in front of his eyes. He was able to keep his excitement under control, however, and perform as well as he had hoped. With the Buccaneers working to forge a new direction under Morris and General Manager Mark Dominik, and the roster getting demonstrably younger, there is a general feeling of possibility among some of the up-and-coming players.
Johnson may still be a long shot to start in 2009, but at least he can start working in that direction.
"I know for me, this is the opportunity right now," he said. "I'm not red-shirting. That's not my job anymore. My job is to compete for the job. So I feel like it's a fresh start for me. That's how I feel and I'm sure a lot of guys who are in a similar situation feel the same way."