Talk about culture shock. Here was Brad Johnson—a meek, gawky Southern kid who had never dreamed of being in Minnesota until the Vikings plucked him in the ninth round of the 1992 draft—standing on the practice field at his first minicamp. In came the play from the sideline: Ax Double Right Spear, Larry 735 H Split Right Pump. At Florida State, Johnson had been accustomed to calls like Right 470 Dip, where the flanker would run a 15-yard out and the split end a post pattern. "I couldn't remember the play well enough to even say it in the huddle," he recalls.
No one minded much. Johnson was fifth on the depth chart, and little was expected of him. But coach Dennis Green was new too, and he saw that Johnson had the arm strength, accuracy and smarts needed to eventually run his version of the West Coast offense. In most other camps Johnson would have been an August cut, but because Green saw potential, Johnson got a chance to absorb the system. He remained on the Vikings' roster, but for two years he didn't take a snap in a game and was never higher than third on the depth chart. "I couldn't have managed it," says Johnson, who threw 73 passes during his first four years in the league. "For me, it was the best situation, even though I still wish to this day they'd have let me do more in practice. I don't think I threw a pass to Cris Carter for four years."
But over the last two seasons Johnson has emerged as one of the NFL's hot quarterbacks. After taking over as Minnesota's starter midway through the 1996 season, he led the Vikings to a 12-7 record, only to be sidelined last Dec. 1 by a neck injury that caused him to lose strength and feeling in his right (i.e., throwing) hand.
Johnson underwent surgery to treat that injury, but now at close to full strength he'll enter 1998 as one of the league's best passers and certainly as a textbook example of how to develop an NFL quarterback. The formula: Keep the same coach, keep the same system (in his seven years with the Vikings, Green has hardly changed the terminology), get the player an internship overseas if you have to and don't rush him. Says Dallas Cowboys first-year coach Chan Gailey, "Sometimes we forget the most important thing about developing quarterbacks: They aren't born, they're made."
In the spring of 1995 Johnson was the beneficiary of two fortuitous events. On draft day, as the Vikings prepared to make a second-round pick, new quarterbacks coach Ray Sherman lobbied for Colorado signal-caller Kordell Stewart. The defensive staff wanted Florida State cornerback Corey Fuller. Green chose Fuller. Oblivious to it all, Johnson was toiling for the London Monarchs of the World League—in what were less than ideal career conditions. Skeptical of the protection his line would provide and wary of pass rushers he might encounter, Johnson was on the phone two hours before his first game with Lloyd's of London, buying injury insurance.
"Even though we had to eat grilled-cheese sandwiches every day and live in an old police academy," Johnson says, "playing in the World League was so valuable for me, because I hadn't been a regular quarterback for nine years, since my 1986 high school season. My offensive coordinator in London, Lionel Taylor, let me call my own plays, and you can't believe what that did for me. I became more assertive, on the field and off. My confidence shot up, because I was thinking down-and-distance, thinking what play would be best. All of a sudden, guys look at you like you know what you're doing."
When he returned to the U.S., Johnson was the Vikings' No. 2 quarterback, behind Warren Moon. By the time he got his first significant NFL playing time, after Moon was injured in the 1996 opener, Johnson couldn't have been more ready. His first start came the next week, against the Atlanta Falcons. "I'd learned for four years totally without pressure," he says. "I worked. I waited my turn. I got better. I grew up, physically and mentally. I was confident and ready. I knew it might be my only chance, but once I got out there, everything worked."
Johnson threw for 275 yards in a 23-17 Minnesota victory over the Falcons, and he was named NFC Offensive Player of the Week. By mid-November he was entrenched as the starter, and he finished the season as the NFL's third-rated quarterback. In December of that year the Vikings rewarded him with a four-year, $15.5 million contract extension. Now, assuming there are no setbacks following surgery to repair a herniated disk, he should be Minnesota's quarterback for years to come.
Johnson grew up in the North Carolina town of Black Mountain, about 60 miles from the hometown of another NFL quarterback, the New Orleans Saints' Heath Shuler, who starred at Tennessee. "Heath didn't know me," says Johnson, "but everyone in Black Mountain knew who Heath was. People used to drive 90 minutes just to watch him play."
Today, their roles are reversed. Shuler, the third pick in the 1994 draft, was rushed into service by the Washington Redskins, who gave up on him after three trying seasons. Now 26, he is fighting to salvage his career as a backup to journeyman Billy Joe Hobert. "I feel for Heath," says Johnson, who works summer football camps with Shuler. "He was always under the gun, always being critiqued, from the moment he got to Washington. A late-round guy like me, an underdog, I had time. One thing I've learned about this position is you'd better have time to learn it."