During a week of NFL news featuring big games, older quarterbacks, Tom Moore and “ ‘The Revenant,’ starring Brad Childress,” I thought of Brad Johnson.
The Vikings chose Johnson out of Florida State in the ninth round of the NFL draft in 1992. Today there is no ninth round. Johnson started as a third-string quarterback, behind Wade Wilson and Rich Gannon. He would quarterback a Super Bowl champion with Tampa Bay and if not for an injury at the beginning of the 1998 season, he might have taken the Vikings to a title as well.
Johnson is one of those people who seems connected to everyone, everywhere, particularly this week.
When Johnson was a rookie, Moore was the Vikings receivers coach. Moore is the Minnesota native who had previously recruited Tony Dungy to the University of Minnesota. Moore might have become the Vikings head coach if Mike Lynn had stayed in power. Instead, he wound up becoming Dungy’s offensive coordinator in Indianapolis and developing the offense that helped Peyton Manning become the greatest regular-season passer in NFL history.
Now Moore is the assistant head coach and offensive consultant for the Arizona Cardinals, who finished second in the NFL in total offense.
“He’s masterful with people,” Johnson said of Moore. “He can find greatness in people who need it pulled out of them. Everybody talks about how far you have to throw it to be a quarterback. He was Terry Bradshaw’s offensive coordinator and he told us one day at practice that they never threw it more than 45-50 yards at practice with the Steelers.
“We were like, ‘C’mon.’ He said their practice field was only 50 yards, so if you threw it farther than that you hit the parking lot.”
Like Manning, Johnson underwent neck surgeries during his career. “I lost a lot of hand strength,” Johnson said. “I just could not grip the ball. You see where Peyton has gone to the glove, whether for the cold or to grip the ball, and he’s probably not making the throws he could in the past. The greatness of him is he still wins ballgames.”
As Vikings coach, Childress frequently butted heads with veteran quarterbacks. He and Johnson had their differences, but Johnson was diplomatic when discussing Childress’ promotion to co-offensive coordinator with the Chiefs.
“It was probably difficult for him when we were together,” Johnson said. “I was a guy who had been with a lot of great play-callers — Jon Gruden, Brian Billick, Norv Turner. I was more of a ‘Check-with-me’ guy, getting the team in the right play. The system they brought in from Philadelphia was not that system.
“I think it’s great for him. He loves football and he’s competitive. He deserves that opportunity.”
Mark Richt was Johnson’s quarterbacks coach at Florida State. Johnson married Richt’s sister, and eventually moved to Athens, Ga., where Richt became the coach at Georgia in 2001.
This winter, Richt got fired and became the coach at Miami (Fla.). Johnson is still in Athens, coaching his middle-school-aged sons in basketball and football. Like Childress, he laminates his play-calling sheets.
“I feel like I’m coaching for the championship of the world, and then I look up in the stands and there are 50 people, all parents,” he said.
Three of the four quarterbacks remaining in the NFL playoffs were the first pick in the draft. The fourth, Tom Brady, was a sixth-rounder. Johnson admires Brady’s rise, and the ability of any older quarterback to withstand the physical toll inflicted by NFL games.
A doctor recently told Johnson he needed two knee replacement surgeries.
“The body hurts,” he said. “Elbow, shoulder, knees, neck. I’ve had a bunch of surgeries. But I loved playing football. I loved it. I played 17 years, played for unbelievable coaches, played with about 15 guys who made the Hall of Fame. I won a Super Bowl. I’m very thankful. That would be the word. Thankful.
“I considered playing in the NFL an honor. And now I get to coach and give back to kids. I’m loving it.”