[size=18px]Vikings: By the book ... Brad's book[/size]

Quarterback Brad Johnson stepped into the Vikings lineup with the savvy of a veteran winner. He used his knowledge and experience to have an impact on the team's offense.

Kevin Seifert, Star Tribune
Last update: December 4, 2005 at 7:32 AM


Confidence? It would ooze from the slightest cut on his arm. In the summer of 1996, Brad Johnson arrived at Vikings training camp to begin his fifth year as a backup quarterback. With no starts and 73 mop-up passes on his résumé, Johnson brazenly declared: "My ability is right there with every NFL starter in the league."

Pride lurks deep in the heart of men like Brad Johnson, whose capacity for success is matched only by his desire to prove it. And so it was nine years later, when Johnson returned to the Vikings offense ... and began running it his way. Drawing from the styles he incorporated during his absence -- the timed release from Washington, a disciplined read progression from Tampa Bay -- Johnson has put his stamp on the Vikings during a 4-0 debut as their starter.

An internal tug-of-war made a brief public appearance, but it appears Johnson and the Vikings offensive coaching staff have settled on an approach that will mix the fundamentals of a vertical passing game with his preferred method of short-drop/quick-release passes. Like carrying a box spring up a narrow flight of stairs, the shift required creativity and sensitivity on both sides.

In the end, however, who could argue with the quarterback who won the Super Bowl three years ago and maintains the third-best winning percentage (.602) of all active quarterbacks, behind only Brett Favre and Peyton Manning?

"I accept that people have perceptions," Johnson said last week, sitting in an empty meeting room as he prepared for today's game at Detroit. "I also accept the fact that I've been to the playoffs with three different organizations, with four different systems and four different coordinators. I'm not going to say one system is better for me than the other. I am going to say that we did that with four different systems."

He hasn't thrown for more than 207 yards in a game this season. Nearly 80 percent of his completions have gone for less than 15 yards, and he has riled coach Mike Tice by checking down liberally to his outlet receivers. He does not fit the strong-armed, play-making style Tice grew accustomed to with Daunte Culpepper, and in truth Johnson deserves simply a share of credit for the Vikings' current winning streak.

And yet Tice has fallen in with scores of other NFL observers who eventually learned to stop talking about what Johnson can't do and focus on what he does.

"He has been very steady for us," Tice said. "He understands his abilities and that he has to play within himself. He does a great job of playing within himself. He does a good job of leading us. I think the players know what to expect from him when they line up on the line of scrimmage."

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Tice and Johnson had spent six seasons together entering this year, three as teammates and three when Tice was a Vikings assistant coach, but their re-introduction in 2005 provides a telling paradigm for Johnson's career. Hours after Culpepper suffered his season-ending knee injury Oct. 30, Tice already was discussing the pending scaleback of his offense under Johnson.

The implication -- that Johnson's arm wasn't strong enough and his feet weren't fast enough -- has dogged him throughout his 14-year career. No suggestion, whether intended as an insult or a statement of fact, makes the hair on his neck stand straighter.

He points simply to his record. The Vikings went to the playoffs in 1996 and 1997 with Johnson as their primary starter. He took Washington to the postseason in 1999, the Redskins' only appearance in a 12-year span that continues today, and threw for a career-high 4,005 yards. "And we had another 425 yards in pass- interference penalties," Johnson adds.

After moving to Tampa Bay, he led the Buccaneers to the postseason in 2001 and a victory in Super Bowl XXXII the following season. In all five of those playoff seasons, Johnson completed at least 60 percent of his passes and never threw more than 13 interceptions.

In many ways, Johnson said, leaving Minnesota in a 1999 trade "was the best thing that ever happened to me." For one, he learned the value of a timed release from Redskins coach Norv Turner.

"When you hit your last step [of a drop-back] you have to throw the ball," he said.

In Tampa Bay, coach Jon Gruden enhanced his ability to recognize the relationship between playcalling and defensive schemes.

"Certain plays, you run vs. certain looks," Johnson said. "His whole thing is not to run a bad play. It might not be a good play, but we're not going to run a bad play."

Defining his current approach, Johnson said: "If you go to the same restaurant every day, that gets old. I want to go to Boston and I want to have clam chowder. I want to go to Louisiana and have gumbo. I want to go to Japan and have some sushi. I want an assortment as a system and as a player. I don't want to be hum-drum. That's where I'm at."

With that mix of styles, Johnson took over as the Vikings' starter Nov. 6 against Detroit. Courtesy of two Lions turnovers, the Vikings used short fields to score 21 second-quarter points and cruise to a 27-14 victory.

Johnson threw for only 136 yards in the game while the Vikings rushed for 164. They managed just 137 yards of total offense in a 24-21 victory over the New York Giants, and by halftime of the following game at Green Bay, Tice was agitated.

The Vikings hadn't scored an offensive touchdown in eight quarters, and Johnson had completed 10 of 19 passes for 82 yards. Coaches held a brief discussion about replacing Johnson with backup Shaun Hill. Eventually, they implored Johnson to have patience with the downfield passing game rather than checking down to short-range receivers.

"To me, the systems he's been in throughout his career, they're the kinds where you get the ball out a little quicker," said tight end Jermaine Wiggins, the primary beneficiary of Johnson's read progression. He is averaging 9.8 yards on a team-high 19 receptions in Johnson's four starts.

"He goes with what he sees," Wiggins added. "He's calm and even-keeled. He never really gets flustered."

Indeed, Johnson led the Vikings to a comeback victory with a strong second half against the Packers, and the victory seemed to mute the difference of opinions. Tice, however, publicly chided Johnson the next day for "trying to reinvent the wheel and bring some things in from the outside that aren't us."

To that point, only nine of Johnson's 51 completions had gone for more than 14 yards. Three came in the second half against the Packers. Johnson, in fact, was averaging a paltry 5.7 yards per attempt after Culpepper posted a typical Vikings number of 7.2 yards before his injury.

The shift was not an act of insubordination or even a clash of styles, Johnson said, but the result of his educated pledge to "throw where the coverage dictates."

"The way I look at it," Johnson said, "is you call your play, whatever it is, and I'm going to read [the defense] from inside out and from high to low. Coverage dictates where the ball goes. I don't care what you call. I'm going to read it the way you teach it, and hopefully it works."

• • •

Through a series of conversations during the past two weeks, Johnson and the coaching staff came to an agreement on how the offense would run. The vision began to emerge in last week's 24-12 victory over Cleveland, when Johnson completed seven passes of more than 15 yards.

"Basically," receiver Travis Taylor said, "it took us a game or two to get ourselves into game condition with him. ... The biggest thing was timing. I know with Brad, he likes a lot of different routes. He likes things that go across the field, with receivers coming under the coverage. That's his type of thing. So we adjusted our routes. It was all things we had in this offense, just that we weren't using it as much."

Indeed, close observers of the Vikings noticed more quick-drop passes and play action, along with a commitment to the run like never before. The Vikings have rushed at least 30 times in three of Johnson's four starts, regardless of outcome, in attempt to develop rhythm.

"Brad is a rhythm guy," Tice said. "He is going to get the ball out on rhythm. The running game helps him more. We wanted to do some more three-step [drops]. We have never been a really good three-step team here. We are working diligently on that because Brad likes that. What I didn't like was the lack of rhythm offensively, [but] I felt the second half of the Green Bay game and last week [against Cleveland] we started to develop that."

The offense is far from a completed project, but this much is clear: It is very much a group effort. A man of convictions saw to that.

"I've got ideas now," Johnson said. "Instead of just saying, 'OK, coach,' I'm at the point of saying, 'What do think about this, and what do you think about that?' And they might say, 'OK let's try this.' At least there is some dialogue. I want dialogue, instead of, 'Let's just run the play.' That's crazy. That's where I'm at. Let's have conversations. I don't care who is the right one. Let's just get the calls right."

Kevin Seifert • [email protected]