When the Washington Redskins traded away first-, second- and third-round draft picks for the services of quarterback Brad Johnson last February, skeptics carped the team had overpaid badly.
Johnson, 30 at the time, never had played a complete season in five years with Minnesota. Accuracy and reliability were his trademarks, but stamina and resilience remained questions.
Sunday, Johnson answered those critics again by proving himself a workhorse in the biggest game the Redskins have played in Coach Norv Turner's tenure. He passed for a team-record 471 yards as the Redskins defeated the San Francisco 49ers, 26-20, in overtime to win the NFC East.
Johnson's output represented the most passing yards by any quarterback in the NFL this season and eclipsed the career-high 334 yards he had before this season. Johnson's 32 completions (on 47 throws) tied Sonny Jurgensen for the most by a Redskins quarterback. And his 471 yards boosted his total for the season to 3,930 yards--179 shy of the Redskins' record.
While Johnson played down the importance of individual statistics, he also made clear he hoped the Redskins' performance Sunday would silence the nay-sayers.
"I've been putting up with a lot of rumors about having a tired arm, about being an injury-prone quarterback," Johnson said yesterday. "Coming here, being a part of it--it's a special feeling. That's all that matters."
Against San Francisco, the Redskins needed virtually every one of his 471 yards.
"He had a great day," Jurgensen said of Johnson. "He made the plays when they weren't capable of running the football or running it very well."
The critical ingredient of the Redskins' offensive success this season had been the balance of the run and the pass. But with the division title on the line, Washington was without Stephen Davis, the NFC's leading rusher. Backup Skip Hicks brings a different style, favoring outside lanes to direct runs up the middle. Things got off to an ominous start when Hicks was stopped for no gain on a third-and-one play that ended the first offensive series.
And when the final statistics were tallied, the Redskins compiled just 57 rushing yards on 17 carries, for a 3.4-yard average.
Johnson missed his share of passes, of course. But nerves, he said later, simply weren't a factor. Instead he had fun--more fun, in fact, than he'd had in awhile.
"We just got in a groove, and that's what you look for as a quarterback," Johnson said. "You're not really caught up in the score. You're not really getting caught up in what's at stake. You're just out there playing ball like it was out in the back yard."
With the Redskins trailing 7-0, the 49ers blitzed, sending safety Tim McDonald. Johnson fired a deep ball to wide receiver Michael Westbrook, who easily beat free safety Lance Schulters on the coverage and ran it in for a 65-yard touchdown--the biggest passing play of the season.
"He's phenomenal in open space," Johnson said of Westbrook.
The Redskins relied on play action often to counter the pressure of the blitz.
Still, the offense moved in fits and starts in the first half.
"We were making plays," Johnson said, "but we weren't making enough first downs when we were at certain points. We were getting the ball to the 50, but we weren't able to get a first down once we got there."
At halftime, with the Redskins trailing 13-7, Turner called on his players to show what kind of character they had in the second half. Johnson simply focused on playing with more consistency.
The defense raised its game, too, contributing a turnover that led to a Redskins field goal and a fumble recovery that saved the game.
With roughly 3 1/2 minutes to play in regulation, Johnson tied the game at 20 with a one-yard lunge on a quarterback sneak.
Then, after the Redskins won the coin toss in overtime, Johnson needed four plays to drive his team 78 yards for the game-winning score. The touchdown throw came on a passing play that the Redskins classically run to the left. That's what the 49ers' defense prepared for, blitzing on the play. But Johnson said the formation was changed at the last minute by Turner, with input from backup quarterback Casey Weldon. The play went to the right, catching San Francisco off guard. Fullback Larry Centers was wide open in the flat and had so much time to run it in, he all but tip-toed over the line for the victory and division title.
Johnson has started 15 games this season--two more than he has played in during any previous season--and there is speculation he might be pulled in Sunday's season finale against Miami, if the Redskins don't need him.
The idea doesn't sit well with Johnson, who approaches the game as if he still has something to prove.
"I don't want to" come out, Johnson said. "But that'll be someone else's call."
A Game Above the Rest
Brad Johnson's 471 passing yards Sunday were the most in the NFL this season. The NFL's top five of 1999:
Brad Johnson, Redskins vs. 49ers
471 yards, 2 TD
Jeff Garcia, 49ers vs. Bengals
437 yards, 3 TD
Jim Miller, Bears vs. Vikings
422 yards, 3 TD
Peyton Manning, Colts vs. Chargers
404 yards, 2 TD
Jim Harbaugh, Chargers vs. Vikings
404 yards, 1 TD
Redskins records set by Johnson on Sunday:
* Passing yards in a game: 471 (old record: 446 yards by Sammy Baugh, Oct. 31, 1948)
* Completions in a season: 309 (old record: 293 by Joe Theismann, 1981)
* Completions in a game: 32 (tied with Sonny Jurgensen, 1967, and John Friesz, 1994)
Johnson is now fourth in the NFL in passing yards and passing touchdowns after 15 games
Player Team Yards TD
Kurt Warner Rams 4,218 39
Steve Beuerlein Panthers 4,114 31
Peyton Manning Colts 3,978 26
Brad Johnson Redskins 3,930 24
CAPTION: "Coming here, being a part of it--it's a special feeling. That's all that matters," says Brad Johnson, who threw for team-record 471 yards vs. 49ers.
CAPTION: Quarterback Brad Johnson (14), who cost the Redskins first-, second- and third-round draft picks, has NFC East Division champions in playoffs for first time since 1992 season.