Three hours before the biggest game of his 11th NFL season, Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Brad Johnson sat at his locker and studied the contents of an oversized briefcase. Over and over, as is his custom, Johnson rummaged through the black case, making sure every cleat, rib pad, sweatband and towel was in its place. After 20 minutes of preparing what he calls the Kit, Johnson handed it to a Bucs equipment assistant, whose responsibilities include indulging the compulsions of Tampa Bay's most important offensive player.
Before and during games such as Sunday's NFC South showdown against the Atlanta Falcons at Raymond James Stadium, Johnson pays more attention to clothes than a Saks Fifth Avenue security guard trailing Winona Ryder. The 34-year-old quarterback changes his socks and shoes after every quarter and spends halftime replacing everything but his uniform pants. "I know it's sick, but I like everything to be fresh," Johnson explained after a 34-10 romp over the Falcons, a victory that kept Tampa Bay (10-3) atop the division and in the race for home field advantage in the NFC playoffs. "I sweat a lot, and I like that clean feeling. It's strange, but at least I know what my problem is."
Give Johnson dry gear and some pass protection, and he becomes a big problem for the other team. On Sunday the NFL's most overlooked passer shredded the Atlanta defense by completing 23 of 31 passes for 276 yards and four touchdowns. Most improbably, he overshadowed the Falcons' acrobatic second-year quarterback, Michael Vick. While Vick is doing his best to revolutionize his position, Johnson can happily set the game back 30 years when he plays the way he did against Atlanta.
After a week of hype in which Vick was compared with everyone from Gale Sayers to Michael Jordan, it was Johnson who controlled the air traffic. "You're finding more athletic quarterbacks who can make special plays, but just because I stand in the pocket doesn't mean I'm not athletic," the 6'5", 226-pound Johnson said after the game. "People are saying that pocket passers are on the way out, but I saw Tom Brady win the Super Bowl last year and Trent Dilfer and Kurt Warner before him. There are different ways to win, and it takes a total team."
If Sunday's game proved anything, it's that the Bucs are a more complete team than the Falcons. Atlanta (8-4-1) came in unbeaten in its last eight games, a streak that was launched after a 20-6 home defeat to Tampa Bay in early October. Vick, who had been neutralized in that meeting before being knocked out with a shoulder injury, promised that the rematch would be his biggest game of the season, and his teammates spoke of making a leaguewide statement. But from the third snap on Sunday—when Vick took off up the middle and was slammed to the ground by All-Pro linebacker Derrick Brooks after only a one-yard gain—it was obvious that the revolution was on hold. "I've never run up against a team like that," Vick said afterward. "There was nothing I could do."
One week after he had thrown for 173 yards and run for 173, including a thrilling 46-yard dash that gave Atlanta an overtime victory against the Minnesota Vikings, Vick had 15 rushing yards on five carries against Tampa Bay. His passing numbers (12 of 25 for 125 yards) included his fourth interception of the season, a second-quarter miscue that helped stake the Bucs to a 14-0 lead. Said Tampa Bay's All-Pro cornerback, Ronde Barber, whose coverage on wideout Brian Finneran led to the interception by teammate Dexter Jackson, "What we put on the field is intimidating. You see it firsthand—again—and you realized we're not the Minnesota Vikings. We've been a good team for a long time. The difference this year is the number of guys who are into it on both sides of the ball."
Could it be that in this NFL season of surprises the team poised to make the strongest playoff push is the league's perennial postseason patsy? As always, Tampa Bay has a punishing defense (the league leader in fewest points allowed per game, 12.2, and fewest yards, 246.7) and a usually underwhelming offense. Says first-year Bucs coach and noted offensive guru Jon Gruden, "We're just getting started here." But on Sunday, with fullback Mike Alstott (13 carries, 95 yards) jump-starting a wheezing ground attack and No. 3 wideout Joe Jurevicius playing like a poor man's Plaxico Burress, the offense looked downright prolific.
Tied with the Philadelphia Eagles and the Green Bay Packers for the league's best record, the Bucs (who lost to the Eagles in October, beat the Packers last month and would be the NFC's No. 2 seed if the playoffs started now) believe that spending the first few weeks of January at home in Florida is the key to reaching Super Bowl XXXVII in San Diego. "If we get home field advantage throughout the playoffs," says wideout Keyshawn Johnson, "you can go ahead and make our reservations for San Diego because nobody's beating us."
You won't hear such daring words from Brad Johnson, who saves his bravado for game day. His teammates call him the Bull, and they wince during Monday morning film sessions when they see the repeated beatings he often takes. "The guy is as tough as anybody I've seen in football," Falcons defensive end Patrick Kerney said last Thursday. "He knows he's about to get a potshot, and he doesn't take his eyes off his receiver. He gets killed back there and doesn't care." Johnson didn't flinch when that comment was relayed to him. "That's the way I'm going to play," he said. "I don't think about it; I just take the shot and move on."
Last Saturday, while bemoaning his team's running attack (31st in the league going into the Atlanta game), Gruden said, "If we could run the ball better, we wouldn't throw it as much. We're sensitive about how many hits Brad takes. I don't know if you've noticed, but we're having a pretty damn hard time protecting him." Johnson, however, emerged from Sunday's game relatively unscathed.