Sonny Jurgensen knows a few things about playing quarterback in this town. And when he is asked about Brad Johnson's first two games for the Washington Redskins, the superlatives begin to flow.
"He's playing better than anybody in the league," the Hall of Fame quarterback and Redskins radio broadcaster said. "He's playing the position as well as it can be played."
The Redskins are basking in the glow of Sunday's 50-21 thumping of the New York Giants at Giants Stadium. They know they are only a series of fourth-quarter misplays and muscle cramps in the season opener away from being 2-0. They have amassed 85 points and 899 yards of offense in their first two games. And it all starts, they know, with their quarterback.
Club officials knew they were getting an accurate passer and a solid starting quarterback when they traded three draft choices to the Minnesota Vikings in February for Johnson. They didn't know, however, that Johnson would be this good.
Some of the good things that Johnson has done in his first two games are obvious. Virtually every throw has been on time and on target; he has completed 40 of 61 passes for 613 yards with five touchdowns and no interceptions. He has an NFL-best quarterback rating of 125.9.
But Jurgensen notices more subtle points. He talks about Johnson's ability to see the field and throw to the proper receiver, even if it's his second or third option. He talks about Johnson's knack for sidestepping an opposing pass rush, even while looking somewhat gawky at times, and hanging in the pocket to give his receivers time to get open. He talks about the desire and confidence that Johnson instills in his teammates and in Coach Norv Turner. He talks about Johnson's ability to think the game.
He cites the first play from scrimmage in Sunday's game. Johnson was supposed to throw a quick-hitting slant pattern but it wasn't there; he threw instead to wide receiver Michael Westbrook for a seven-yard gain. It wasn't a spectacular play but it put the Redskins on their way to a 68-yard touchdown drive and a 21-0, first-quarter lead.
By Jurgensen's count, Johnson has saved at least 20 plays that last season's quarterbacks, Gus Frerotte and Trent Green, wouldn't have pulled out under the same circumstances. In some cases, that has meant completing a pass that Frerotte and Green would not have. In others, it has meant avoiding a costly sack or interception.
"The thing that has surprised me is his ability to ad-lib," Jurgensen said. "He does that better than I expected. The first play was supposed to be a slant. But he comes off it. He doesn't force it. . . . Last year we'd have tried to stick it in there and it could have been intercepted."
The Redskins entered the season uncertain about the production they could count on from running back Stephen Davis, Westbrook and fellow wide receiver Albert Connell and their revamped offensive line. In two games, Davis has 235 rushing yards and five touchdowns. Westbrook and Connell have combined for 17 catches, with three touchdowns, and are averaging 22.6 yards per reception. Johnson's blockers have allowed him to be sacked only twice, both during the 41-35 overtime loss to the Dallas Cowboys in the opener.
Certainly, those around Johnson are playing well. But Johnson probably deserves some of the credit there as well. He has gotten the ball to Westbrook and Connell in spots where they could make plays. His passes have stretched opposing defenses and created running room for Davis.
He also is tough and stubborn. Despite undergoing a pair of knee surgeries in the offseason, he didn't miss a beat in Sunday's game even when he suffered double vision briefly after being poked in the eye by a Giants defender.
"This is the best quarterback Westbrook has played with," Jurgensen said. "Ask the offensive linemen. When you have a quarterback who's going to make a play, you protect him. You block for him. He gives you a chance. . . . For the first time, you have an offensive leader, which is the quarterback's job. But you've got to be able to play to do that. He's a take-charge guy. He doesn't panic. He just gets the job done."
Turner spent five seasons attempting to groom Heath Shuler or Frerotte to be the franchise's quarterback of the future. He turned to third-stringer Green last season out of necessity. Now, though, Turner's offense is flowing the way it did when he was the Cowboys' offensive coordinator and had Troy Aikman at the helm.
"What we're seeing is Norv's offense with players, with a quarterback," Jurgensen said. "He's never had that here before. . . . Norv is much more comfortable. He's more flexible. His offense had been handicapped. And this is not a knock on those young guys. They were still learning. Brad is a veteran. He's experienced. And I think he'll get better."
Turner said: "It gives you a feeling that it may not be a great play, but it won't turn out bad. When you have that feeling in your game planning and play calling, it gives you more freedom."
Johnson is getting just about everyone involved. Fullback Larry Centers was the Redskins' leading receiver in the opener with six catches. Tight end Stephen Alexander led the way Sunday with five receptions, two for touchdowns. Only running back Brian Mitchell, with no catches and six carries in two games, has been left out thus far. Turner is running different players in and out of the offensive huddle, mixing in plenty of formations and players in motion to confuse defenses -- and getting results.
"We have more players that can make plays," Turner said. "It does give you the opportunity to dictate to the defense. We do have more flexibility. We've always been multiple-formation. When it doesn't work, people don't notice as much."
Johnson, for his part, credits his teammates.
"Scoring 50 points, that doesn't happen very often," he said. "When you have the team play as well as it did, that's something you can build off of. You feed off each other. That was a great way to bounce back. . . . I feel very good about what's happening now."
It won't always be as easy as it has been the first two weeks, Jurgensen reminds. The Redskins faced the Cowboys without their best defensive lineman, tackle Leon Lett, and without starting cornerbacks Deion Sanders and Kevin Smith. They faced the Giants without cornerback Jason Sehorn and picked mercilessly on his replacement, Jeremy Lincoln. But Johnson will adjust, Jurgensen said, and continue to give the Redskins as much as they could hope for out of the quarterback spot.
"You're not going to play an offensive game that easy," Jurgensen said. "Guys were so wide open. The game gets harder. He's going to have games where it's tougher. But he makes good decisions. He'll throw the ball away when he needs to. He's going to be fine. It'll be fun to watch."
Redskins Notes: In an attempt to improve their struggling special teams, the Redskins signed linebacker Eddie Mason and released wide receiver Chris Thomas. Thomas didn't have a reception this season and had 25 catches in his two-plus seasons with the team. He was on the roster mostly for his special-teams play, but those units have made a series of mistakes the past two weeks and the Redskins hope Mason, formerly of the New York Jets and Jacksonville Jaguars, will be an upgrade.