Brad's Back

January 1 – The Tampa Bay Buccaneers held its first practice of 2003 on Wednesday and starting quarterback Brad Johnson took part in it. Johnson actually took all of the snaps during Wednesday's practice and the team has no doubt that Johnson's lower back bruise will be just fine for the playoffs.

Tampa Bay quarterback Brad Johnson returned to practice Wednesday. It was Johnson's first full practice with the starters since December 13 and according to Buccaneers head coach Jon Gruden, the lower back bruise that Johnson suffered against the Detroit Lions on Dec. 15 did not hinder his play during Wednesday's workout.

"I'm not going to speak for him," Gruden said when asked if Johnson had any discomfort during Wednesday's practice. "I try to get information from Secret Agent Johnson, but it's very hard to do. He looked like he had no effects whatsoever. He made some nice moves, moving to his left, to his right, he pushed up in the hole, he threw some intermediate cuts, he threw some outside-breaking routes, he pushed the ball when he wanted to. He really showed no ill effects whatsoever.

"Brad Johnson took every snap and was very sharp. He will be our starting quarterback whenever we play here next week."

Johnson thought his first practice in three weeks went well.

"I felt great out there, took all the reps," Johnson said. "I was able to make all the throws, do all the drop-backs, no pain. I didn't feel anything. My legs are very fresh, probably too fresh right now. But it's good. I've missed being in the huddle and it's great to be back in there. So I feel good about it, and it came at a perfect time. I feel like I could play this week if the playoff game was this week. It's just great that we ended up getting the bye like we did and winning the division like we did. It was an awesome year and now we've got something special to play for."

A few weeks ago, Johnson wasn't even sure if he'd be able to play again this season.

"I was very concerned," Johnson said. "I think we were all concerned that first week. There was a lot of pain. I wasn't able to get in and out of the car – easy things. I didn't really now how long this would take and how long it would linger. I've done all the ice, the heat, the massage, acupuncture. I've done every anti-inflammatory you can think of. They've taken great care of me. I didn't feel like I could play against Pittsburgh at all. I felt like if I had to, the other day, as far as going into the game against Chicago, I could have gone in maybe in the fourth quarter. But that was without two weeks of practice. But now I feel very fresh and I have no symptoms."

Although the Bucs have gone 2-1 in his absences this season, the offense has struggled without Johnson in the lineup.

Backup QB Rob Johnson has started two games in place of Brad Johnson due to two different injuries. The offense failed to score a touchdown in both of those contests and produced a total of 27 points, all of which came off of Martin Gramatica field goals.

In Brad Johnson's most recent two-game hiatus, the Bucs' offense, led by Rob Johnson and Shaun King (vs. Pittsburgh), produced one touchdown and five field goals.

He wasn't voted to the Pro Bowl, but Brad Johnson has completed 62.3 percent of his passes for 3,049 yards and has tossed a single-season franchise record 22 touchdowns and just six interceptions in 13 starts. Many people, including his teammates, consider Brad Johnson Tampa Bay's MVP of the season, which is why they're so excited to have him back.

"It's big," Gruden said of having Johnson back in the starting lineup. "Anytime you get your starting quarterback back, you're talking about the No. 1 passer in the NFC. He's thrown 22 touchdowns and six interceptions in just about 12 and a half games of the season. If you take away Rich Gannon or Brett Favre or Kerry Collins or Jeff Garcia, I don't know that any of those teams would operate in the same fashion either. But when you get your starting quarterback back, especially a guy that's played as consistently as this guy has, it's a jolt to your football team."

Johnson said his lower back injury, which has been one of the hottest topics of conversation over the last three weeks, was no longer an issue. Well, what a difference just a few weeks make.

"It's over," Johnson said of his back injury. "The story is over. There shouldn't be another question about this injury. After tomorrow, whatever you write, there should be nothing after that. Not a hit, not a throw – the story is over. I'm moving great, I feel great, I'm not worried about any hits, I'm not worried about anything. The only thing I'm worried about is getting ready for tomorrow's practice and getting better, find out who we play and then get ready to practice on Monday. Practice is the only thing that I am concerned with and that I'm looking forward to."

While Johnson's back injury may no longer be an issue, his absence over the last month could be. Until Wednesday, Johnson hadn't went through a full practice in nearly three weeks and when the Bucs take the field at Raymond James Stadium for its playoff game on the weekend of Jan. 11-12, it will have been almost a month since Johnson played in a game.

Are the Bucs concerned?

"It won't (be an issue)," Johnson said about the possibility of being rusty due to the one-month layoff. "No effect at all. I'm getting all the reps this week and all the reps next week. I went through this in the middle of the season, missed a week and then ended up missing another week with the bye after the Minnesota game. So it won't have any effect at all, really."

Tampa Bay's head coach concurred with Johnson's sentiments.

"He had 43 reps today and he'll have close to 50 tomorrow," Gruden said. "The way we practice and the number of turns he takes, we feel like (rustiness) won't be an excuse."

In other injury news, the Bucs will hold several players out or practice this week as a precaution.

"We held six men today," Gruden said after Wednesday's practice. "(Running back) Aaron Stecker did not practice with an ankle (injury). Jeff Christy has some knee problems and we're going to rest him this week. (Defensive tackle) Warren Sapp, we're going to rest his knee, he has a little fluid there. (Defensive end/defensive tackle) Ellis Wyms has been playing injured this week; he will not work this week, nor will (cornerback) Ronde Barber, who has an assortment of injuries, really. He's found a way to play, but we're going to keep him off his feet this week. And (kicker) Martin Gramatica did not kick, nor will he kick tomorrow."

Although the team does not have an official injury report this week due to the fact that they have no opponent, Gruden said he expects all six players to play in the team's playoff game.

"Yeah, they're going to play," said Gruden. "This is just a precautionary move by us, our training staff and coaching staff. These are guys that need a couple days off. They probably would have been limited if they would have practiced today even if we had a game this weekend."

BROOKS RECEIVES VOTE FOR NFL MVP:
Oakland Raiders Pro Bowl quarterback Rich Gannon was named NFL Most Valuable Player Wednesday. Gannon, who received 19 votes, edged out Green Bay QB Brett Favre by just four votes.

A total of six players received votes for the honor. Tampa Bay weakside linebacker Derrick Brooks received one vote for the award.

While Brooks didn't receive NFL MVP honors, his head coach expects the Pro Bowl linebacker to be named NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

He's got five that I know of -- all three of my boys, my wife and me included," Gruden said of MVP votes for Brooks. "If he doesn't win the (NFL Defensive MVP) award, that will be one of the great shocks of my coaching career. This is the Defensive MVP. From of all of the film I've seen, he's the MVP. Obviously I can't cast a vote and I haven't seen all of the players, but this is a great player coming off an unbelievable season."

NFC PLAYOFF WATCH:
The Buccaneers have a bye week this weekend, but Bucs fans will want to keep their eye on these two games.

Atlanta at Green Bay Saturday 8 p.m. ET on ABC.

*If Green Bay wins, the Packers will play the Buccaneers the following weekend. If Atlanta wins, the Falcons will play the Eagles the following weekend.

New York Giants at San Francisco Sunday 4:30 p.m. ET on FOX.

*The winner of this contest will play Philadelphia the following weekend unless Atlanta defeats Green Bay.


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