Injury, Inconsistency Gives Bucs A QB Quandary

December 24 – Perhaps Tampa Bay couldn't appreciate just how valuable quarterback Brad Johnson was to its team until they saw the offense operate without him against Pittsburgh. Neither Shaun King nor Rob Johnson fared well in Brad Johnson's place and head coach Jon Gruden said there's a chance Brad Johnson, who is still listed as questionable with a lower back contusion, could miss the Chicago game. If Brad Johnson can't go on Sunday night, Gruden isn't sure who will start in his place.

Tampa Bay starting quarterback Brad Johnson was snubbed by voters for the Pro Bowl last week, but perhaps voters and fans who watched the Bucs-Steelers game last Monday night can now truly appreciate just how valuable Brad Johnson is to Jon Gruden's offense. Too bad that level of appreciation didn't come until Johnson couldn't play in a game due to injury.

While Johnson, who had been sidelined for the majority of Tampa Bay's practices last week with a lower back contusion he suffered against Detroit, suited up for Monday night's game, he was inactive and was listed as the team's emergency quarterback. Even Bucs punter Tom Tupa might have seen action before Brad Johnson.

Fans witnessed firsthand how valuable Johnson, who has completed 62.3 percent of his passes for 2,799 yards, 22 touchdowns and just six interceptions, has been to Gruden's offense this season.

Tampa Bay backup QB Shaun King started against Pittsburgh in Johnson's place and had a less than stellar outing. King completed just 9-of-26 passes for 73 yards and he threw a costly interception on the team's first offensive possession, which was returned 30 yards by Chad Scott for a touchdown. That score put the Steelers up 14-0 and put the Bucs in a hole they couldn't get out of.

Without Brad Johnson and with King, the Bucs' offense was horrific to watch. Gruden finally pulled King in favor of Rob Johnson midway through the third quarter in order to try and light a fire under Tampa Bay's flat offense.

"We're down 17-0 and Shaun missed some throws that's he's got to make and that he knows he's got to make and I thought a couple of looks that he needs to see that he didn't see," Gruden said of making the switch at quarterback. "It was just to change the style to give us a fresh start, I thought it was appropriate to go with Rob. I thought Rob handled himself pretty good and executed a couple of very nice drives."

Rob Johnson moved the chains more than King did and he completed 12-of-18 passes for 159 yards. Johnson threw an 18-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson in the fourth quarter, which prevented the shut out. But Rob Johnson took five sacks in 11/2 quarters of play, which also hindered Tampa Bay's offense.

Gruden informed the media on Monday morning that Brad Johnson was still going to be listed as questionable on the team's official injury report. After both King and Rob Johnson struggled last Monday night, that news was certainly discouraging.

"Brad Johnson still is suffering from a lower back bruise," said Gruden. "He'll work out a little bit this morning and we'll determine his status tomorrow at some point. He's listed as questionable for the game."

Gruden suspects Brad Johnson will likely miss at least one day of practice this week due to his severe back bruise, but Tampa Bay's head coach said he'll remain optimistic that Brad Johnson will be able to play against Chicago on Sunday night.

"I can honestly say no, I don't believe he has," Gruden said when asked if Johnson had made enough progress to practice on Wednesday or Thursday. "We're hoping the green light comes on, that we open the refrigerator door and the light is there. Unfortunately for us right now he still is limited in terms of his mobility. Until it subsides, we won't be able to suit him up."

Gruden said the team physicians were doing everything possible to help Brad Johnson return to action as soon as possible. When exactly Johnson will return is still unknown, but Gruden didn't rule out the possibility of the Bucs' starting quarterback being sidelined for the Chicago game and maybe even a playoff game.

"We've got every expert in Florida looking at Brad and helping Brad, me included," Gruden said. I'm trying to urge him back into the line up. Sometimes you suffer a bruise a in that area and it takes a while until the pain goes away. Sometimes it's seven days and sometimes its 17 days or sometimes it's longer. Unfortunately it still limits him and to play quarterback in the NFL, as we all know, you've got to be able to throw the ball from awkward positions and move around."

There were reports last week that suggested Brad Johnson had suffered more than a bruised lower back. Those reports suggested Johnson had cracked one or more of his vertebrae, but Gruden said those reports were erroneous.

"I've heard that," Gruden said of some reports suggesting Brad Johnson has a crack in one or more of his vertebrae. "We have given him an inordinate amount of tests, I am told. We have a great medical staff here and we would never overlook any injury to any player. We have not found any fracture. They're telling me that all x-rays are negative. That's the information I have."

If Brad Johnson can't play against Chicago, Gruden said Monday that he wasn't sure yet who he'd start in his place.

"I don't know," Gruden said of whether King or Rob Johnson would start in Brad Johnson's place. "I'm going to think about it a little further today. In fairness to Shaun King he had been inactive for a long time. He hadn't played in a game since the Houston Texans in the last preseason game. He played limited last year in the last game against the Eagles for 36 plays. To go out there in Week 16 against a defense of that style is very difficult on anyone. I'm not down on him. I'm disappointed in the way it turned out. But I'm going to evaluate that a little more carefully before we make a final decision. We like Rob and we like Shaun and we'll go with whoever we feel gives us the best chance to win."

Tampa Bay plans on discussing the team's quarterback situation throughout Monday and they're hoping to shed some light it within the next couple of days.

"It's not going to be an easy decision, but we feel we'll come to a conclusion here shortly," said Gruden.

Tampa Bay, of course, will conclude the 2002 regular season in Chicago. The uncertainty at the starting quarterback position doesn't bode well for the Buccaneers at this point the season. The Bucs will try to secure a bye week on Sunday night and if that doesn't happen, the Pewter Pirates will host a first-round playoff game. And the longer Brad Johnson remains sidelined, the more the Bucs start to realize that they might have to accomplish both of those goals without their starting quarterback.

Gruden said his team must be prepared to find a way to overcome the difficult challenge of winning without Brad Johnson.

"I can't say I've been through this before," Gruden said of the quarterback quandary. "The teams that are going to be in the playoffs or striving to be in the playoffs and you take away their starting quarterback at this stage of the season – whether you're talking about Brett Favre or (Rich) Gannon or any of these guys – it's going to impact your team to some degree.

"We've got to dig deep and we need to find a way to overcome it."

In other injury news, Tampa Bay defensive under tackle Warren Sapp suffered a knee sprain against Pittsburgh and he'll likely be listed as questionable on the team's official injury report.

"Warren Sapp has a left knee sprain," said Gruden. "He's being evaluated right now and we're going to list him as questionable for this game."

Sapp, who has not recorded a sack in seven games, has sorely missed nose tackle Anthony McFarland, who missed most of the season with injuries before being placed on the injured reserve last week.

If Sapp can't start against Chicago, defensive tackles DeVone Claybrooks, Buck Gurley and Ellis Wyms would rotate at the under tackle position.

Gruden said fullback Mike Alstott, linebacker Jack Golden, linebacker Nate Webster, cornerback Ronde Barber and linebacker Shelton Quarles are all nursing various injuries, but Tampa Bay's head coach said they'll be listed as probable and they expect all of them to play against Chicago on Sunday night.

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