For the first two months of this season, Brad Johnson could do virtually no wrong. The quarterback established himself as an early candidate for the NFL's most valuable player award in leading the Washington Redskins to five victories in their first seven games. He made almost all the right decisions and put practically every throw on target, and he made the players around him play and look better.
As the Redskins have struggled over the past five weeks, though, Johnson has had his problems. After throwing 14 touchdown passes and two interceptions in the first seven games, he has five touchdown passes and eight interceptions in the last five. Meanwhile, the Redskins have lost three of those five games.
What has been different? Johnson has made some bad decisions and poor throws in recent weeks, but it hasn't been all his fault. Quarterback is a strange position because, while it's a magnet for most of the credit or most of the blame, it's a position dependent on the play of others. The Redskins haven't blocked as well for Johnson lately and haven't provided him with the same array of down-field receiving threats. Defenses, meanwhile, have done their best to take away the Redskins' long throws.
"He was so accurate on intermediate and deep throws for seven or eight games, I don't think a guy is ever going to play a 16-game season at that level," Redskins Coach Norv Turner said yesterday. " . . . In some cases, we're playing better defenses than we played early. We're certainly seeing people rush the passer better than they did early. All those things tie into it."
During the second half of the season, opposing defensive backs have been more wary of letting Redskins receivers get behind them. The Redskins have had tight end Stephen Alexander limping with a hip injury and wide receiver Michael Westbrook playing with a cast over a broken bone in his right wrist. And wideout Albert Connell hasn't been as productive as he was early in the season.
"The first few weeks, we played out of our minds," Johnson said. "We played some great football. We didn't have the turnovers. We didn't have the penalties. As the season goes on, people make adjustments, and you have to find a way to adjust to that. A lot of people are taking away our deep patterns. . . . We're not getting the 50- and 60-yard chunks of yardage. That's when you throw for 300 yards. We've still done a good job of moving the ball. We haven't done a good job of taking care of the ball."
On the whole, the Redskins certainly will take what they've gotten from Johnson, who has thrown for 3,031 yards and 19 touchdowns, putting him five yards and one touchdown shy of his single-season NFL bests. He finished second among NFC quarterbacks, behind only the St. Louis Rams' Kurt Warner, in the fans' portion of the Pro Bowl voting announced yesterday.
Johnson acknowledged some bad throws yesterday, but he emphasized the bottom line remains the same: His success will be measured by whether he gets the Redskins into the playoffs and how well they do in the postseason.
"I think I'm throwing the ball well," Johnson said. "What has hurt has been the interceptions. . . . Getting credit, taking blame--you have to have a thick skin. It's part of the deal. When I came to this team, my goal wasn't any personal stuff. This is the first year I haven't gone into the season trying to hit any certain numbers. I wanted to win the division and get in the playoffs and go far in the playoffs. Those were my only goals this year. The individual numbers, they come on their own."
And if he receives a share of the blame for the Redskins' drop-off in production--they've averaged 21 points over the past five games, compared with nearly 35 points in the first seven contests--he said he's willing to accept that.
"I've always had an even keel," he said. "When I won the [two NFC] player of the week awards, it wasn't about me. It was about everyone playing well. Now, if one person breaks down sometimes, we all break down. I've had some plays I'd want back. We all have. We haven't been as sharp as a whole. . . . You have to tell yourself not to get caught up in what people are saying, whether it's good or bad. It's part of being a professional. I think about how many more games and how many more years I'm going to play. There are going to be ups and downs. You just deal with them and move on."
The Redskins' offensive line has been one of this season's success stories, but has yielded a four-sack game and a five-sack game in the last four weeks.
"Brad's been outstanding," Turner said. "The turnovers over the last few weeks, they coincide, to me, with the pressure he's gotten. That's not an excuse. You've got to take care of the ball when you're getting pressure. That's something we need to work on."
The Redskins are clinging to first place in the NFC East, and the way Johnson ultimately will view his first season in Washington probably will be determined in the remaining four regular season games.
"It's been a good season," he said. "I wish we would have won at least two more games. I think we should be 9-3 instead of 7-5. Individually, I think I've made some positive plays that I wouldn't have made in the past. At the same time, I'd like to try to eliminate a few mistakes, and get a little quicker and crisper with a few of my reads. That just comes with time."
Brad Johnson's Season Statistics
Att Comp Pct Yds/Gm TD Int Sacks
First Seven Games 222 139 62.6 265.9 14 2 8
Last Five Games 178 105 59.0 234.0 5 8 11
Totals 400 244 61.0 252.6 19 10 19