As rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III and the Redskins rallied to win the NFC East title last season, more than a few Washington fans probably didn’t know who the starting quarterback had been the last time the franchise had finished first 13 years earlier.
Was it Mark Brunell? Mark Rypien? Gus Frerotte? Trent Green? How about none of the above. The answer is Brad Johnson, whose 4,005 passing yards during that 1999 season rank second in Redskins history.
“Griffin’s fun to watch,” Johnson said the other day from his Athens, Ga. Home. “He did a great job ball security-wise and he’s very dynamic with the plays he can make. It will be fun to see how he develops over the next three or four years. I really like [Redskins backup Kirk] Cousins, too. I saw him play his last game at Michigan State against Georgia.”
Of the nine quarterbacks to lead their teams to a Super Bowl victory during the past 13 seasons, Johnson and Tom Brady are the only ones who weren’t drafted in the first or second round.
In fact, Johnson was chosen by Minnesota in the ninth round of the 1992 draft, a round that doesn’t even exist anymore. But he not only made the Vikings’ roster, he lasted 17 years in the NFL although he didn’t play his first two seasons and didn’t start a game until his fifth.
“I’m proud of how I dealt with all the adversity from being a ninth-round draft pick to not playing my first few years after not starting in college to dealing with injuries and the day-to-day grind,” Johnson said. “I had a winning percentage with every organization I played for until the end in Dallas when I was 1-2 [as Tony Romo’s backup in 2007-08]. I was 72-53 as a starter. I put up numbers [29,054 yards, 166 touchdowns and an 82.5 passer rating]. I didn’t compromise my career for what anybody else said or thought about me.”
That includes Dan Snyder, who basked in the glow of the Johnson-led playoff victory over Detroit in January 2000 as Washington’s rookie owner but prodded coach Norv Turner to play his preferred acquisition, Jeff George, over the established starter the next year. When the Redskins lost at home to the New York Giants to tumble to 7-6 after a 6-2 start, Turner was fired and Johnson was benched. Johnson returned for the meaningless finale but he was heading away as a free agent.
“1999 was a fun year,” said Johnson, whom general manager Charley Casserly had acquired from the Vikings hours after 1998 starter Green signed with St. Louis as a free agent. “It was a childhood dream for me because I was a big Redskins fan as a kid. I loved playing for Norv.”
Funny thing is that Johnson’s most memorable play, his screen pass to fullback Larry Centers that beat host San Francisco in overtime to win the NFC East crown in Week 16, was a mistake.
“[Third-string quarterback] Casey Weldon was calling the plays into me and he actually called the play backwards,” Johnson said with a chuckle. “It was supposed to be a play-action pass to the other side. Guys were supposed to run drags to the right, but they ran to the left. When the receivers ran the wrong way, it left Larry all by himself out in the flat so it ended up being the perfect play. Winning the division title was awesome. The Redskins hadn’t been to the playoffs in a long time and no one gave us much of a chance, especially when we lost [the opener to archrival Dallas 35-14].”
Johnson said that he and his wife Nikki loved living in Northern Virginia, but that “it was time to move on” in the winter of 2001. He signed with the Buccaneers whom he led to their only Super Bowl triumph in his second season with the organization.
“As a kid, it’s your dream to win the Super Bowl and all of a sudden, the confetti’s falling and you’re saying, ‘I’m going to Disney World,’ “ he recalled. “I didn’t sleep for three days from the adrenaline and the excitement of being part of something like that. Without winning a Super Bowl, I would feel incomplete. I couldn’t sleep at night.”
Despite the rigors of 17 NFL seasons that included dropping back 4,526 times and being sacked 251 times, Johnson is healthy enough at 44 to play tennis and golf regularly, coach four youth basketball teams and to work with promising high school quarterbacks.
“I hurt when I get up in the mornings, especially my knees and my ankles, but I stay pretty active,” Johnson said. “I raced my sons [Max, 12, and Jake, 10] on the beach last year and I beat them by three inches over 40 yards. I drank a six-pack to celebrate because that’s the last time I’ll ever beat Max. I have my degree in education [from Florida State where he was never the regular starter]. I wanted to be a teacher and a coach and that’s what I’m doing.”
Johnson was smart enough with the millions he made in the NFL that he doesn’t have to do anything he doesn’t want to.
“I’m fortunate enough to be in a good financial state where I don’t have to grind away at an 8-5 job,” he said. “I loved playing football. That’s what I wanted to do. It’s a physical sport and you pay the price, not just for the games, but for the practices and the offseason workouts.”
During his final season, Johnson knew he was done.
“I couldn’t run on the Mondays after games even when I wasn’t playing,” he remembered. “My body just fell apart. It was time. I’m so thankful for the coaches that I played for and the players that I played with. I played with a bunch of Hall of Famers – John Randle, Cris Carter, Warren Sapp, Darrell Green, Chris Doleman, Warren Moon, Randall McDaniel [among them]. I’m thankful for being a part of greatness.”
And the Redskins will always be thankful that Johnson led them to greatness in 1999.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin