At 0-3, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are in desperate need of a spark – and a win.
Bucs head coach Raheem Morris shook up Tampa Bay's starting lineup Monday, benching starting quarterback Byron Leftwich in favor of second-year signal caller Josh Johnson.
Leftwich, who signed with the Bucs during the offseason, completed 54.2 percent of his passes for 594 yards and tossed four touchdowns and three interceptions in three starts.
Tampa Bay's offense produced just 86 yards vs. the New York Giants in a 24-0 loss at Raymond James Stadium Sunday. That poor offensive output caused the Bucs offense to drop from fourth overall to 26th overall in the NFL rankings.
"We already spoke to Byron and Josh," said Morris. "I wanted to [talk to] those guys before I talked to you guys. We're in constant evaluation of our football team. We made that decision today.
"This is a young team. We've got to look at all our young players and see what they are, what they're going to be and what they're capable of being. This probably won't be the only change, but it certainly will probably be the biggest."
Morris defended Leftwich, explaining how not all of Tampa Bay's woes can be attributed to the quarterback play over the first three weeks of the 2009 season.
"I hate to make this about Byron because Byron wasn't the guy that jumped offsides on the second play of the game or the one that let the three technique in the backfield on a first down run," said Morris. "He missed a few throws. He didn't give us the accuracy we needed. But it's not all on Byron. But that position, just like the head coach, is usually the one that gets the blame."
Johnson concurred with Morris' sentiment regarding Leftwich falling on the sword for the entire Buccaneer team.
"It wasn't just Byron. I feel like Byron has done a good job leading the offense," said Johnson. "Yesterday was just one of those days when nothing went right. As the quarterback of he team, if I was in the same situation I was going to be the guy to take the fall. That's the just natural reality of the situation.
"We all played bad, honestly. If you watch the film it was a team thing. In reality Byron was the quarterback, and it happens that way."
Leftwich has been designated Tampa Bay's number three quarterback behind Johnson and rookie Josh Freeman. Tampa Bay's 2009 first-round draft pick will serve as the No. 2 signal caller.
Morris suggested Leftwich could still help the team by mentoring Tampa Bay's younger quarterbacks and players.
"Josh Freeman will be the number two, so he'll be expected to be ready to go and keep improving as a pro, which I believe he's doing," said Morris. "He's got to prepare as the No. 2 from now on.
"I don't want to lose Byron Leftwich – the guy he is and who he is. He looked me in the eye and told me, ‘Coach, I ain't going to change.' He's a great guy to be around. Magic Johnson, I call him, with that smile, that personality and that glow. That's the reason he was the starting quarterback at the beginning of the season – one of them."
Even though Johnson has served as the No. 2 quarterback during the regular season, some might be surprised that Morris elected to start Johnson over Freeman, especially since Tampa Bay's first-year head coach said just a few weeks ago that he compared Johnson to former Dallas Cowboys QB Jason Garrett, who was considered a reliable career backup.
Morris explained that comment Monday.
"I think I said that wrong," Morris said. "We were playing the Cowboys that week so I was using Jason Garrett as a positive example. What I really meant, and I told these guys that to I didn't want to be portrayed wrong because that is my team, I told Josh [Johnson] I was saying I want him to be on our team for 10 years. Jason had been on the team for 10 years and had been a backup for Troy Aikman, and guys like that. Steve Young, I'm sure the 49ers wanted him to be a career backup. It just so happened that he decided to be a Pro Bowler, and decided to go to the Hall of Fame. That is what I meant by that comment.
"Josh Johnson is a guy that when I talk about how he prepares. How he prepares when he is not the starter because that is the only thing we've seen. The reason why he was the number two to start season out is because I know what I'm going to get from Josh Johnson in a game whether he is getting every rep in practice or not. It is just like yesterday. He is going to come out and execute the game plan. He is going to know every protection. He is going to know what the defense is going to look like. He is going to be prepared. That's why I used the backup reference because that was his role. Josh Johnson has got an opportunity, a great one, and he's earned it."
When the Bucs acquired Leftwich in free agency and used their first-round pick to draft Freeman during the offseason, it appeared as though Johnson was the odd man out heading into training camp.
However, Johnson performed well while receiving a limited number of reps. 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 in preseason.
While he lacks playing experience, the 6-foot-3, 205-pound Johnson gives the Bucs offensive significant mobility.
Johnson completed 4-of-10 passes for 36 yards and rushed for 15 yards on one carry after Leftwich was benched in the fourth quarter of Sunday's game.
"Josh provides us with some more options," said Morris. "He allows us to go out and compete and do some different things. I sat down with my staff and general manager Mark Dominik, and made that decision today.
"He definitely gives you that dynamic. We're not making excuses with behind without our starting center (Jeff Faine), but Josh creates a different matchup for people. He gives you a better chance to break out of the pocket and make a play with his feet."
But Johnson isn't the only player that will have to use his feet to make plays and pick up first downs in games. In order for Johnson and the offense to succeed, the Bucs must run the ball better. After rushing for 174 yards vs. Dallas in Week 1, the Bucs ground game has cooled off, averaging just 86.3 yards per game.
"That's got to be the priority for everybody, it doesn't matter who is the quarterback," said Morris. "When you talk about the running game that has got to get back going. It has to. It has to be there. We have to force our will somehow to get that thing going. We have to. We can't go out and let what happened yesterday happen. I keep coming back to this point, but the second play of the game to get off track like that can't happen."
Johnson posted impressive numbers at San Diego, where he completed 724-of-1,065 passes for 9,699 yards and tossed 113 touchdowns and just 15 interceptions while starting 34 of the 41 games he played in college.
In addition to his 176.8 passer rating ranking as the best-ever by a NCAA quarterback, Johnson also rushed for 1,864 yards and 19 touchdowns at the collegiate level.
Teams passed on Johnson due to his poor showing at the Combine and the fact that he played at the Div. I-AA level, but Johnson's production prompted the Bucs to select him when he fell to them in the fifth round of the 2008 NFL Draft.
While he doesn't have Leftwich's 6-foot-5, 250-pound frame or playing experience, Johnson does possess similar arm strength in addition to his unique mobility. The Bucs don't believe they need to drastically change Greg Olson's offense with Johnson in the lineup.
"The thing that you get from Josh Johnson now is some of the quicker throws, some more timing things, but he can still handle the play-action passes and throwing the ball down the field," said Morris. "He's a pretty accurate quarterback. I have a lot of confidence that we can remain similar to what we've been. Josh just gives us a few more options with the obvious gift of the legs."
But Johnson's legs aren't his only attribute. During his rookie season, Johnson was inactive for all 16 of Tampa Bay's regular season games. That allowed Johnson to work with Olson, who served as the quarterbacks coach at that time, to work with the rookie quarterback, just as he did with Drew Brees at Purdue and Jeff Garcia in San Francisco, among others.
While he didn't play much in practice, Johnson took a lot of mental reps, which helped him in terms of executing Tampa Bay's offensive playbook, which carried over a lot of the same plays and West Coast concepts from former Bucs head coach Jon Gruden's system.
"The good thing for me and Josh is that we spent last year together," Olson said. "We were in that quarterback room together and have a background with one another. We speak a lot of the same language. I think he's really further along than both Josh Freeman and Byron Leftwich in terms of the playbook and the mental part of the game and the offensive line calls. That's good. I know I can trust him. He's in an unfortunate situation because we're trying to speed up the development of Freeman and it's hard for Josh to get many reps out here, but he's been great."
Olson told PewterReport.com just last week that he could be a little more creative from an offensive playcalling standpoint with Johnson on the football field.
"There would be some differences if Josh Johnson had to come in and play quarterback," Olson said. "He's a different quarterback. He's not a stand-in-the- pocket guy like Byron. I always tell Josh that he has a special ability – not Michael Vick-like – but he's that kind of player where I would want him to use his legs more because he does have special speed and he is very elusive. He has shown us that he can escape and make people miss. There would be some definite changes in what we would be doing if he were to play quarterback for us. There would be some base stuff that would be the same, but I see some real difference with him in there at quarterback for us in a football game. We would have some special plays for him."
This time last year, Johnson had to work hard to justify his spot on Tampa Bay's 53-man roster, especially since the Bucs kept four quarterbacks. In order to get work in, Johnson stayed after each practice and threw the ball to Olson or sometimes even garbage cans on the football field.
Johnson always believed his hard work would pay off down the road, and now his opportunity to play has arrived.
"When I was doing it I was looking at it as something I'm doing for the future," said Johnson. "It was a lot different coming from college to the NFL, just how much time you have to prepare, and I looked at it as a positive situation. I had basically almost 24 hours a day to study football. I never had that opportunity before. I took it as an opportunity for me to grow as a player, as a quarterback, and I benefitted a lot from it.
"This is an opportunity I plan on taking advantage of."