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TimesDispatch: Rob Johnson's What if?


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Johnson is Skins' Plan B

Career: question marks, not exclamation points



ASHBURN -- Few players have as big a "What if?" hanging over their careers as Rob Johnson.

Johnson was the starting quarterback for the Buffalo Bills in a wild card playoff game following the 1998 season. With 1:41 remaining in the game, and no timeouts left, Johnson directed a six-play, 38-yard drive to set up what appeared to be the game-winning field goal.

On the ensuing kickoff, Titans tight end Frank Wycheck took the ball, then tossed a lateral across the field to wide receiver Kevin Dyson, who returned it for a touchdown. Dyson was perhaps a fraction of an inch behind Wycheck when the lateral was thrown.

What if that lateral had been ruled an illegal forward pass and Buffalo had won the game? Would Johnson's career have been different?

"Probably," he said. "We had a pretty good team. We might have gone deep into the playoffs."

Tennessee went to the Super Bowl that year.

"Exactly," Johnson said.

A bigger "What if?" in Johnson's career, though, concerns his health. What if he hadn't been injured so often? Instead of signing to be the Washington Redskins' backup, Johnson might be a franchise quarterback somewhere else in the league.

"I was having a good season the year after that playoff game, then I got hurt," Johnson said. "That's been my major problem."

Johnson, 30, is entering his ninth NFL season. He came into the league as a fourth-round draft choice, out of the University of Southern California, by the Jacksonville Jaguars in 1995. His career consists of 29 starts, 5,702 passing yards, 30 touchdown passes and 22 interceptions.

"What's frustrating is, I look at my numbers, and I know numbers don't mean much, and I've played pretty well when I've had a chance," Johnson said. "And I think I can play at a high level. I've just got to learn not to take so many sacks and stay healthy. One of these days that will happen, and I'll find a place."

Johnson spent last season in Tampa Bay, serving as the backup for most of the season. He could have returned in that role with the defending Super Bowl champions but opted out.

For a week last year, Buccaneers coach Jon Gruden put third-string quarterback Shaun King ahead of Johnson. That meant King started when Brad Johnson was out with a back injury.

"That hurt me mentally," Johnson said. "I didn't trust Gruden as much after that.

"I also thought that backing up a young guy would be better for me at this point in my career than backing up a 35-year-old guy who just won a Super Bowl."

Johnson's brief tenure with the Redskins has been punctuated by highs and lows. Early in training camp, he struggled to pick up coach Steve Spurrier's system.

Last week, Johnson began to look sharper.

"In Tampa, their philosophy is get the ball out of your hand quickly," said quarterbacks coach Noah Brindise. "We take a little more time with it. We try to read deep first.

"What coach Gruden thought was a great play, coach Spurrier might not think is a great play. It's different philosophies. Rob has adapted well. It's taken some time, but he's getting it."

Johnson clearly was frustrated early in camp. To help him get through that, he turned to a coach who knows him well, his father Bob Johnson.

Bob Johnson, the head coach at Mission Viejo (Calif.) High School, has been involved in coaching for 34 years. He coached both his sons at El Toro High School in California and, through the Elite 11 football camp, has helped with the development of such NFL quarterbacks as David Carr, Joey Harrington, A.J. Feeley, Carson Palmer and Kyle Boller.

"I'm there for encouragement and to pick him up," Bob Johnson said of his conversations with Rob. "If he's had a tough week, I can tell in his voice. Quarterback is such a mental position. You just can't let any of those outside factors get in your head. You have to believe in yourself and do the best you can."

Off the field, Rob Johnson is the quintessential Southern California, laid-back guy. He personifies casual and is friendly and accommodating to everyone.

He lives in California during the offseason, but he's finding some things of interest in Northern Virginia. He was particularly impressed with Mount Vernon, the home of George Washington.

"George had a nice pad," Johnson said.

Mount Vernon's a "pad?"

You can take the quarterback out of Southern California, but you can't take the Southern California out of the quarterback.

Contact Paul Woody at (804) 649-6444 or pwoody@timesdispatch.com

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