Like every other team in the NFL, the Washington Redskins are eyeing a lengthy list of variables as they try to figure out how successful they'll be this season. But as the Redskins approach Sunday's regular season opener against the Dallas Cowboys, they know the answer to one question will be the most important: Will they be able to keep quarterback Brad Johnson healthy?
Since acquiring Johnson in a trade with Minnesota in February, the Redskins have seen enough of his skills to know that they could have a special player on their hands. They love his decision making and passing touch, and say he's the sort of leader that they haven't had at the helm of their offense in years.
But he's coming off an injury-filled '98 season with the Vikings and a pair of offseason knee surgeries, and the Redskins' offensive line is coming off a calamitous season in which it surrendered a franchise-record 61 sacks. It's an ominous mix, especially when the Redskins' offense doesn't have a proven running back to divert opposing defenses.
Johnson's health is an issue that has been swirling around the Redskins since the early days of training camp, when Coach Norv Turner banned television crews from filming a practice session because he didn't want observers making judgments based on half-speed drills. Turner gave Johnson occasional days off during training camp and has limited his playing time in preseason games.
So far, so good. Johnson made it through the preseason without any setbacks, and he and Turner say they're convinced they took the proper approach.
"I must have taken about 70 percent of the snaps in practice," Johnson said. "I felt comfortable. I think we played this thing perfect with me, as far as coming off the surgeries. You hate to deal with nagging injuries, but it's part of life in this league. Our coaches and trainers have accepted the situation. They haven't attempted to push me too hard. They realized you don't win championships in August."
Turner said: "We were smart with Brad. We were good. He's played in this league. I'm not concerned about him getting ready to play. I'm concerned with him getting familiar with our system and getting comfortable in our offense. He's ready for the season."
The Redskins have remade the offensive line that failed to protect quarterbacks Trent Green and Gus Frerotte last season. One of last season's starting tackles, Shar Pourdanesh, was traded to the Pittsburgh Steelers. The other, Joe Patton, was released. Only one member of last season's offensive line, center Cory Raymer, will start at the same position this year.
Tre Johnson has been moved from left guard to right guard, and rookie Jon Jansen has taken over at right tackle. A pair of veterans, guard Keith Sims and tackle Andy Heck, have become starters on the left side. Heck struggled at times during training camp. But the Redskins can use a tight end or running back to help him, and Johnson has tight end Stephen Alexander and running backs Brian Mitchell and Larry Centers to use as targets for short, quick-hitting passes.
Team officials were relieved during the preseason when they saw Heck haul down opposing defensive ends when he was beaten. They can live with a holding penalty. They can't live with the sort of hard hit on Johnson that Patton yielded when he missed a blocking assignment on the Redskins' fourth offensive play of their first preseason game.
Johnson said he's comfortable with his blockers.
"I have a lot more confidence in them than the perception is made out to be by other people," he said. "They've done a great job so far."
He compares his relationship with Turner to the smooth working relationship he had with Vikings offensive coordinator Brian Billick, now the Baltimore Ravens' head coach. And he says that, even after missing practice time during minicamp following the second of the two surgeries on his left knee and then throwing a modest 52 passes in the four preseason games, he has come a long way in the familiarization process.
"It's two different worlds," Johnson said. "I've always felt comfortable with the concepts. But when I got here, I didn't know anyone. I didn't know the system. I didn't know the players I was playing with. I've gotten a real good feel for Norv. I see how he calls a game. I have a feel for the guys I'm playing with."
Neither of the Redskins' starting wide receivers, Michael Westbrook or Albert Connell, has had more than 44 catches in an NFL season. Starting tailback Stephen Davis's single-season NFL best in rushing yards is 567. Still, Johnson said he's confident in the talent of those around him.
"I think the running backs will have a great season," he said. "It's up to me, the offensive line and the receivers to hold up our part. I think we're fine at receiver. Those guys are making the plays in practice."
It was supposed to be Johnson, not Randall Cunningham, leading the Vikings to greatness last season. A broken leg and broken thumb cost Johnson the starting job, though, and Cunningham led Minnesota to a 15-1 regular season record. Now Johnson is ready for his new beginning, and he said his goals for this season's Redskins are no different than they were for last year's Vikings.
"Last year in Minnesota, I thought we had a lot of potential," Johnson said. "It turned out to be a dream season. I think a lot of good things can happen here. I have all the confidence in the world. My goals are no different than they were last year. I expect to win the division, get in the playoffs and then see what happens."
JOHNSON'S PASSING YEARS