1 Tampa Bay Buccaneers
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Their own expectations may turn out to be their toughest
By Josh Elliott
Even when you're a marquee NFL free-agent quarterback, you've got chores. So when new Buccaneers quarterback Brad Johnson was hosting some buddies from his alma mater, Florida State, at his house in early July and it began to rain, he hurried to move the furniture on his pool deck under cover. That's when he slipped and opened a deep gash on his left knee. As the blood gushed, his season to come suddenly seemed in doubt. "My wife, Nikki, is a physical therapist, and she got nervous," Brad said after a training camp practice in August. "So that was a bit of a shock."
To the relief of Tampa Bay fans and the Johnsons, the laceration turned out to be merely a flesh wound. "I feel very lucky," he said, rubbing at the 15 stitches above his kneecap. "It could've been a lot worse."
On a team as prodigiously talented as the Buccaneers, it seems almost odd that the unassuming and well-traveled Johnson could make or break the franchise's hopes this year. Such is the fate of a perennial Super Bowl contender that can no longer afford -- given spiraling salaries, shaky team chemistry and the coach's increasingly tenuous hold on his job -- an early playoff exit. After the splashy arrival of wideout Keyshawn Johnson last year, Tampa Bay seemed a lock to be playing in late January. Instead, an early four-game losing streak buried the Bucs, teammates sniped at one another as the pressure mounted, and Tampa Bay was thumped in the first round of the playoffs by the Eagles.
Despite setting team records for points (388) and touchdowns (43), the offense often sputtered, undone by questionable play-calling and the inaccuracy of quarterback Shaun King. If the offense is finally to lighten the load of a defense that wore down last season, Brad Johnson must be the difference maker. After last season it was assumed that Johnson was headed to the Ravens for a reunion with Baltimore coach Brian Billick, Johnson's old offensive coordinator with the Vikings. When Tampa Bay made a more attractive offer, however, Johnson instead went south.
Making the move easier was his enthusiasm for the schemes of Clyde Christensen, the Buccaneers' new offensive coordinator. Christensen, the quarterbacks coach a year ago, has vowed to make greater use of Keyshawn Johnson this season, especially in the red zone. Keyshawn caught only eight touchdown passes last year, and seven of them came in just five games. Christensen has a much better rapport with him than former coordinator Les Steckel did; for evidence, witness the cross-country trek Christensen made to Keyshawn's Los Angeles house in February to personally deliver his plans. "He came to me and told me I'd be a more important part of the offense this year," says Keyshawn. "It's no secret I wasn't used properly last year. I had 71 catches, but they weren't the right catches. Brad's incredibly accurate, and he's a leader. It's like having an extra mind helping you run your route."
Brad Johnson, a career 61.8% passer, figures to be an upgrade over King, who was inconsistent as a starter and completed just 54.4% of his throws last season. Though Johnson's durability is iffy -- he has finished an NFL season just once in his nine-year career -- he excels at the medium passing game and finding backs in the flat, two Tampa Bay offensive staples. Look for a big year from tailback Warrick Dunn as the new featured back, while Mike Alstott becomes more of the pass-catching H-back he was when he had 65 receptions as a rookie.
If coach Tony Dungy allows Christensen to make full use of his offensive weapons, no one will be happier than members of Tampa Bay's vaunted defense. The unit tired noticeably at the end of last season, particularly against the run. Though the addition of free-agent end Simeon Rice will help the pass rush, tackles Warren Sapp and Anthony McFarland will be counted on to plug the middle. "Coach Dungy has made it clear that Super Bowl teams are consistently in the top three against the run," says free safety John Lynch. "We've committed ourselves to stopping the run. It's our top priority."
Along, it seems, with winning the Super Bowl. A full month before the season was to begin, Sapp gave a nationally televised interview in which he said that either the Buccaneers win it all this year or else. "You have nine, 10 Pro Bowlers and you don't win a championship? C'mon, something's wrong. If we don't win, they're going to dismantle this team."
It's quite something when your superstar intimates in August that no one's job is safe. More than anything, it's as if the Bucs, dominant though they may be, are too aware that any slip from Super Bowl contention will be a bloody one indeed.
Issue date: September 3, 2001