A Clean Break

Times Staff Writer

It's Super Bowl time, so we know all about Rich Gannon, the Oakland Raider quarterback, spectacular passer and fiery competitor. He is the NFL most valuable player, with a swagger to go with the honor.

But what about the quarterback on the other team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers? Isn't it some guy named Johnson? Is that the same Johnson who played for USC and came out of El Toro High? Rob Johnson?

Or are we mixed up? Is there another guy named Johnson here, the player who used to be with the Minnesota Vikings when we didn't pay much attention to them except for the year Randall Cunningham made like Dan Marino?

Yup, that's the guy, Brad Johnson, perhaps the most invisible Super Bowl quarterback since Joe Namath's backup.

But then, it figures that even the starting quarterback might not get noticed much on a Tampa Bay team that is coached by the handsome and charismatic Jon Gruden and features talkative egocentrics Warren Sapp and Keyshawn Johnson. Don King would have a tough time getting noticed alongside that Tampa Triumvirate.

It turns out that Brad Johnson is certainly worth noticing.

He ranked first in the NFC in passing rating this season, completing 281 of 451 for 3,049 yards and 22 touchdowns. He had only six passes intercepted and his completion average of 62.3% is a Buccaneer record.

Mostly, in his 11 years of kicking around the NFL, Johnson is a winner. His record as a starter is 51-28, a .646 winning percentage that places him second among active NFL quarterbacks, just .19 behind Brett Favre, who is 115-58. He ranks 10th among all NFL quarterbacks in career passing rating; the names above him include Joe Montana, Steve Young, Favre, Marino and Gannon.

Statistics aside, Johnson is an interesting personality, just not quite the kind who will light up a room already illuminated by the strobe lights of Gruden, Sapp and Keyshawn.

He was born 34 years ago in Black Mountain, N.C., or, as he puts it, "I'm from a little town on a dirt road at the top of a hill."

He has striking blue eyes, freckles and light brown hair. All that, coupled with his Southern twang, brings images of Tom Sawyer floating on a raft down the Mississippi.

But that image belies reality. There is a competitive burn within Johnson, who was chosen in the ninth round of the 1992 draft by the Vikings with the 227th pick and didn't play one minute of one game for his first two seasons.

Once he got his shot, when Warren Moon was injured, he was ready to make his way in a league that has a tendency to eat its young.

"I've had more valleys than peaks in my career," he says, reflecting on a series of injuries and management decisions that seemed to push him down every time he showed he was ready to step up.

When he appeared to be the future of the Vikings, he broke his leg and Cunningham suddenly became All-World. When the Redskins traded for him, he got them an NFC East title in 1999, but soon ownership fell in love with Jeff George and Johnson was back being anonymous Brad.

He decided to go the free-agent route and decided that Tampa Bay was his best landing spot. In 2001, he passed for 3,406 yards and 13 touchdowns and got the Buccaneers into the playoffs, losing to the Eagles.

This season, with Gruden joining the mix, Brad Johnson, with Rob as his backup, reversed that playoff result with the Eagles in the NFC title game, passing for 259 yards and a touchdown in the 27-10 victory at Philadelphia.

So here he is, again on the verge of emerging from the pack of faceless, undistinguished Johnsons, on a Super Bowl stage that gives some degree of permanence to personalities.

Already, he has moved from bland to quirky. His teammates have let it be known that he is a clean-and-dry freak, and his obsessive/compulsive changing of uniforms at practice, during games, and perhaps even on picture day has provided new fodder for the journalistic cannons.

"When he retires," reserve running back Aaron Stecker said, "we're just gonna get him three trunks of new, clean stuff for his going-away party."

Johnson keeps trunks full of extra socks and shoulder pads and jerseys and wrist bands and hand towels, even shoes. He changes after pregame warmups, then again at the half. He will even change jerseys along the sideline during a game.

"I just like the clean feel," he said. "You play a half, and you are all sweaty and your jersey is all torn and you just feel cleaner, better, ready to start fresh, with a new set of clothes. You see golfers do it after nine holes on a particularly hot day. You see tennis players change in the middle of a set."

He was asked if he even changes during Monday night games, when it tends not to be quite so hot.

"Oh, yes," he said. "I chart how much time I have and there is a little more at halftime on Monday nights, 14 minutes plus another minute or so for other things. I watch these things closely."

This compulsive behavior is not new, according to his father, Rick, who told Joe Henderson of the Tampa Tribune about the time young Brad told his parents he was going over to a local gym by himself to shoot baskets. His father, suspecting that he was instead sneaking off to a girlfriend, checked it out and found his son dribbling around chairs he had set up in the gym and then stopping and shooting at other chairs. When he finished each play, he wrote it all down on a chart.

He was an all-state basketball player who felt so strongly about his future in that sport that he quit football before his senior year and had to be talked back on the field by his coach. All that meant was that he made all-state in both sports.

He went on to play quarterback at Florida State, as well as a freshman season of basketball, but his Seminole football days were less fulfilling than he would have liked because he played a backup role most of the time to Casey Weldon.

Now, as the obsessive/compulsive quarterback of the Buccaneers, he is locked on a new target, the Vince Lombardi Trophy.

During an interview session here this week, he used the word "consistent" at least 25 times and the phrase "put us in position to win" about as often. For Gruden, who is smart, bombastic, emotional, fiery, creative and stubborn, a quarterback who lives and breathes consistency is a perfect fit.

They are the firecracker and the rock.

Sunday, most of the quarterback talk, at least in the early stages, will be about Gannon. The cameras and the commentators will lean toward the known quantity.

But there may be another side to this quarterback story. It may be that Brad Johnson, whose real first name is James, will become the second Jimmy Johnson to put his lasting stamp on this biggest of games.

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How They Rate

So you think the best passer always wins the Super Bowl? Guess again.... In 36 Super Bowls, the quarterback with the higher passer rating has won 17 times, for a .472 winning percentage. For those keeping score, Rich Gannon (97.3) and Brad Johnson (92.9) finished second and third in the NFL in quarterback rating, respectively.

*--* No Winning QB/Team Rating Losing QB/Team Rating I Bart Starr, Green Bay 105.0 Len Dawson, Kansas City 101.7 II Bart Starr, Green Bay 64.4 Daryle Lamonica, 80.8 Oakland III Joe Namath, N.Y. Jets 72.1 Earl Morrall, Baltimore 93.2 IV Len Dawson, Kansas 69.9 Joe Kapp, Minnesota 78.5 City V Johnny Unitas, 65.1 Craig Morton, Dallas 89.9 Baltimore VI Roger Staubach, Dallas 104.8 Bob Griese, Miami 90.9 VII Bob Griese, Miami 71.6 Billy Kilmer, 84.8 Washington VIII Bob Griese, Miami 84.3 Fran Tarkenton, 93.2 Minnesota IX Terry Bradshaw, 55.2 Fran Tarkenton, 82.1 Pittsburgh Minnesota X Terry Bradshaw, 88.0 Roger Staubach, Dallas 78.5 Pittsburgh XI Ken Stabler, Oakland 103.4 Fran Tarkenton, 89.3 Minnesota XII Roger Staubach, Dallas 87.0 Craig Morton, Denver 82.0 XIII Terry Bradshaw, 84.7 Roger Staubach, Dallas 84.9 Pittsburgh XIV Terry Bradshaw, 77.0 Vince Ferragamo, Los 49.0 Pittsburgh Angeles XV Jim Plunkett, Oakland 72.9 Ron Jaworski, 91.0 Philadelphia XVI Joe Montana, San 88.4 Ken Anderson, 98.4 Francisco Cincinnati XVII Joe Theismann, 91.3 David Woodley, Miami 63.5 Washington XVIII Jim Plunkett, Oakland 82.7 Joe Theismann, 97.0 Washington XIX Joe Montana, San 102.9 Dan Marino, Miami 108.9 Francisco XX Jim McMahon, Chicago 82.6 Tony Eason, New England 67.5 XXI Phil Simms, N.Y. 74.6 John Elway, Denver 79.0 Giants XXII Doug Williams, 94.0 John Elway, Denver 83.4 Washington XXIII Joe Montana, San 87.9 Boomer Esiason, 97.4 Francisco Cincinnati XXIV Joe Montana, San 112.4 John Elway, Denver 73.7 Francisco XXV Jeff Hostetler, N.Y. 83.2 Jim Kelly, Buffalo 101.2 Giants XXVI Mark Rypien, 97.9 Jim Kelly, Buffalo 97.6 Washington XXVII Troy Aikman, Dallas 89.5 Jim Kelly, Buffalo 81.2 XXVIII Troy Aikman, Dallas 99.0 Jim Kelly, Buffalo 79.9 XXIX Steve Young, San 112.8 Stan Humphries, San 81.6 Francisco Diego XXX Troy Aikman, Dallas 93.6 Neil O'Donnell, 87.7 Pittsburgh XXXI Brett Favre, Green Bay 95.8 Drew Bledsoe, New 83.7 England XXXII John Elway, Denver 87.5 Brett Favre, Green Bay 92.6 XXXIII John Elway, Denver 93.0 Chris Chandler, Atlanta 100.9 XXXIV Kurt Warner, St. Louis 109.2 Steve McNair, Tennessee 78.6 XXXV Trent Dilfer, 76.6 Kerry Collins, N.Y. 83.1 Baltimore Giants XXVI Tom Brady, New England 86.5 Kurt Warner, St. Louis 101.4 Total Wins 17 Total Losses 19

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--ROY JURGENS

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