He hadn't even taken his first rep as Tampa Bay's starting quarterback until late this afternoon, but quarterback Josh Johnson might have been the most popular player at One Buccaneer Place Wednesday.
Johnson, 23, is preparing for his first start in the NFL after being named Tampa Bay's starting signal caller on Monday.
The Bucs offense currently ranks 26th in the NFL after producing just 86 yards in a 24-0 loss to the New York Giants, which led to QB Byron Leftwich's benching and Johnson's promotion.
With the Bucs 0-3 on the season, head coach Raheem Morris made the move in attempt to provide his team with a spark. Although they didn't say whether they supported the move, the players are committed to rallying around Johnson in hopes of recording their first win of the season.
"I don't think it's that big of a deal," said Bucs right tackle Jeremy Trueblood. "Josh has been here, he's worked hard and he knows what he's doing. It's not like we're throwing him to the wolves. He has been here a long time. He's such a smart guy and he knows exactly what he's getting into."
One of Johnson's biggest supporters is the player he replaced. Leftwich, who is now Tampa Bay's number three signal caller behind Johnson and Josh Freeman, said he is focused on helping the former San Diego standout succeed.
"I knew, and I think we all knew, that I had to win coming out of the gate," said Leftwich. "I knew that if we didn't win football games this was going to be a possibility, no matter how I played. I knew we had to win games, and when that didn't happen I wasn't surprised by the decision. I was disappointed, but I wasn't surprised."
Leftwich, who remains a team captain despite being benched, can relate to the challenge standing in front of Johnson. In 2003, Leftwich, was who was a first-round pick with Jacksonville that year, was called on to replace veteran QB Mark Brunell, who was benched after Jacksonville got off to a poor start.
"It was the same situation," Leftwich recalled. "Brunell was there, and there was nothing he had done wrong, but by the fourth game of the season we were 0-3. I was in the same situation, so I would be naive to sit here and act like I don't know how this works. I understand how it works. I gave it all I had and it wasn't good enough, so now it's time to get the young guys in and run with them. My job is to help them out."
So what advice did Leftwich offer Johnson as he prepares to play the 1-2 Washington Redskins on Sunday?
"He told me to go out and do what I do best," said Johnson. "He's been around me for months now. He has seen how I play, and how I go about playing the quarterback position, and he was like, ‘You'll be fine.' If he sees something on film he'll give me a quick reminder and say, ‘Hey, Josh.' That's what he was doing even as a starter. That is the kind of guy he is, so just kind of get help from him, and even Josh [Freeman]. He watches film just like everybody else, so I take it all in."
Johnson, a 2005 fifth-round draft pick, spent his rookie season as Tampa Bay's fourth-string quarterback. He was considered the odd man out heading into training camp. Not only did he earn a roster spot, Johnson has also earned the opportunity to start for the Buccaneers.
That role likely will make him more recognizable in the Tampa Bay community, which prompted Bucs wide receiver Antonio Bryant to give Johnson some different advice that could help him away from the football field.
"My number one advice as a person, and personally, was just protect yourself," said Bryant. "I told him all that going to the club and stuff, you got to cut that, cut it out. Go to the movies. You know you got to substitute some things because your situation has changed. Your face is a lot more recognizable. It is a little different you know what I mean. When I first got here nobody knew who Antonio Bryant was. They didn't really bother me. It was maybe after that Chicago game my life kind of went back to fast speed. It was, ‘Hey, how you doing guy?' from the mail lady to (anybody going) out."
Johnson probably won't be going to the movies anytime soon. One of the things his teammates respect most about Johnson is his work ethic both on the field and in the classroom, and there's plenty of work to do between now and Sunday.
"He's got a lot of leadership qualities for such a young guy," said Trueblood. "People gravitate toward him and follow him. What else would you want in a quarterback? He's one of the smartest guys on the team, especially when it comes to football."
Although he's received little playing time from the start of his rookie season to now, Johnson has impressed in his opportunities.
In preseason, he completed 17-of-30 passes (56.7 percent) for 218 yards and tossed one touchdown and one interception while rushing nine times for 88 yards (9.8 avg.) and a score.
When Leftwich was benched late in the fourth quarter last Sunday, Johnson gave the Bucs' flat offense life. He completed 4-of-10 passes for 36 yards and rushed for 15 yards on one carry while engineering a drive that could have ended with a touchdown had wide receiver Michael Clayton not dropped a pass in the back of the end zone.
That performance opened some eyes around One Buccaneer Place.
"We're confident in his ability," Clayton said of Johnson. "I told him I was proud of him and his confidence in the huddle. He really took control. He's doing everything that he's supposed to do. He's going to be able to make some plays outside the box and you feel real comfortable with that."
Bucs offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Greg Olson, who has worked closely with Johnson since April of 2008, concurs with Clayton's assessment of Johnson's presence in the huddle.
"The game is never too big for him," said Olson. "He's never seemed intimidated in the huddle, and when he steps in the huddle there's no question he's in charge. Now that it's a regular season game I don't foresee there being an issue with that, but that's certainly something you worry about with someone that has a small college background that's never been on the big stage."
The 6-foot-3, 205-pound Johnson spent a significant amount of time in the huddle at San Diego. He played in 41 games with 34 starts.
Not only did he play, Johnson performed exceptionally well, completing 724-of-1,065 passes for 9,699 yards and tossing 113 touchdowns and just 15 interceptions while rushing for 1,864 yards and 19 scores at the collegiate level.
Johnson's teammates are well aware of the success he had in college and what he's capable of doing on the football field.
"I saw his college stats. They're ridiculous," said Trueblood. "I don't care who you're playing against. That's impressive."
The Buccaneers expect the Redskins defense to prepare for the mobile Johnson by running bootlegs in practice, but Tampa Bay believes Johnson, who has a strong arm, is capable of doing damage from the pocket, in addition to using his legs to move the chains.
"The most dangerous part about young guys is you don't know what they are capable of doing," said Bryant. "Surrounding him with all of the positive things we can bring to the table, making the catches, making the tough caches, being in place, running the right routes, that will make his job a lot easier for him."
In some ways, Johnson reminds Bryant of one of his former teammates in Dallas. After sitting the bench three seasons, Cowboys QB Tony Romo received his opportunity to start in 2006. He has since started 32 games and thrown 85 touchdowns en route to two Pro Bowls.
While he isn't ready to anoint him a Pro Bowl quarterback, Bryant believes Johnson can capitalize on the opportunity he's prepared for, just as Romo did in Dallas.
"I was watching some film from last year and I was watching some highlights from the Cowboys game," said Bryant, who played with Romo from 2003-04. "I thought to myself, ‘Josh Johnson reminds me a lot of Tony Romo. Just being around and seeing the situation Romo was in where he always had quarterbacks ahead of him and had to wait his turn. This guy sat there and mastered the system during that time. He literally learned how to be a professional and mastered the system.
"What was Romo thinking during that time? He was probably saying, ‘Well, when I get in this should be like that.' So, once it was in his control he knew what to do when he got into the game. I think that happened with Josh Johnson on Sunday. There were some things he saw from the sideline, because we talk during the games, so once he got in he started making things happen. The quarterbacks have the fastest access to the film, and he's already come to us and said, ‘Hey, I saw this on film.' That's encouraging. That means the guy is taking it to another level."
While his situation, preparation and playing style might draw comparisons to other NFL quarterbacks, Bucs head coach Raheem Morris stressed the importance of allowing Johnson to make a name for himself, and with his teammates' support.
“I’m not telling him to go out there and be anybody but Josh Johnson,” said Morris. “Josh Johnson went out in the preseason and peformed well, and he performed at a high level. He is a very confident young man. He has a nice swagger. He is not Troy Aikman, and he is not Michael Vick. He is Josh Johnson. He is the guy right in the middle of all that stuff. He has the support of this team, he has the support of his leaders, he has the support of his coaches, he has the support of Byron Leftwich. He has the support of all those guys. We will go out and support him to the best of our abilities and then let him become himself.”
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