Not long after Jon Gruden had been named head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last February, quarterback Brad Johnson was in Florida and talking to a friend attending a Minnesota Wild hockey game in Minneapolis. She told him she'd just seen Oakland quarterback Rich Gannon in the stands, and Johnson asked if she could find him and put him on her cell phone.
She tracked down Gannon at the concession stand, eating a hot dog. Between bites, Gannon answered a few questions about the brilliant 39-year-old head coach who had helped groom Gannon into one of the league's premier quarterbacks. Gruden was about to revamp the Bucs' offense into a West Coast style of precision short-route passing that Johnson would soon have to learn.
"He raved about Jon," Johnson recalled today. "He said he was very intense and very detail-oriented. He said you will never go into a game more prepared than you are with Jon Gruden. He said how fun it was to play for him, and it would take a while to learn the protections and schemes, but to buy into it and trust the guy. I did that right from the get-go."
Johnson probably won't be talking to his friend and former teammate Gannon much this week, even if both are five days from the most important day of their professional lives -- Super Bowl XXXVII.
Both starting quarterbacks offer portraits in perseverance over long and not always distinguished careers. Their paths crossed for the first time in 1992, when Gannon, by then a five-year veteran and the starting quarterback for the Minnesota Vikings, met Johnson, the team's ninth-round draft choice from Florida State -- the 227th pick overall and the 14th quarterback taken.
Gannon could empathize with Johnson because he also was not a marquee pick. He liked the kid's work ethic and his athletic ability. A star quarterback at Delaware, Gannon had been drafted in the fourth round in 1987 by the New England Patriots, who wanted him to play defensive back. When he balked, six days after the draft, Gannon was traded to the Vikings for several future picks, the first move on his odyssey through the league.
Gannon spent his first five seasons with the Vikings, where Dennis Green eventually gave up on him. He spent the 1993 season in Washington, starting in four games and playing in eight before a shoulder injury sidelined him, and surgery forced him to sit out the 1994 season. When the Redskins chose not to re-sign him, he spent 1995-98 with the Kansas City Chiefs, where Marty Schottenheimer gave up on him in favor of Elvis Grbac, a mistake that eventually led to Schottenheimer's ouster.
Gannon, now 37, signed with the Raiders as a free agent in 1999 and has become one of the great late-blooming athlete stories in league history, winning the league's offensive MVP this year and leading his team to its first Super Bowl appearance in 19 years. While Johnson is a classic pocket passer, Gannon has gained scads of first downs and touchdowns with his nimble feet and running skills, even at his advanced age.
"I didn't come into this league with a silver spoon in my mouth," Gannon said today. "That's probably helped me -- being in the right place at the right time, having a coach that's patient with you, having good people in skill positions. . . . I have no animosity toward anyone, toward any coach. I took the road less traveled, if you will, and I appreciate the opportunities I've had."
It's no surprise that Gannon calls former Oakland quarterback Jim Plunkett, hero of the Raiders' Super Bowl victories in 1981 and '84, his favorite all-time player. Gannon often has been compared to Plunkett, who also went through difficult times and Gannon spoke reverentially about him today.
"I only hope this week will end in a way that's favorable to us and that comparison holds up," Gannon said. "Of all the older Raiders, he's my favorite. In addition to his accomplishments on the field, he's such a good person. He was a guy who went from New England to San Francisco to Oakland and was on the verge of being out of the game. They said he was too old, or didn't have a strong enough arm, and then he led them to two Super Bowls. I'm a big fan of his."
Gannon also is a huge fan of Johnson's.
"I broke Brad in," he said of their time together in Minnesota. "He was a young guy with a lot of talent. You could see from an early point that he was going to be a good player. We're good friends, and there have been similarities in our careers. Denny Green sent him on his way there, too."
Both men also wore Washington uniforms at one time, and also were pushed out the Redskins Park door, Gannon after his shoulder surgery in '94 and Johnson after hurting his knee in the 2000 season, when the man who helped get him to Washington, Norv Turner, was fired by owner Dan Snyder with three games remaining in the season.
Publicly, Johnson says he has no bitterness toward the Redskins. He had led the team to the playoffs the year before, and he said there were preliminary talks on a contract extension during the offseason. Those talks stalled, and after the Redskins' 5-2 start that year, Johnson said both sides decided to put a moratorium on talks until after the season.
Johnson also knows that some Redskins front office people were bad-mouthing him, saying his passes had lost their zip and speculating that he might have had shoulder problems as well as the knee injury. Asked about that today, Johnson said he'd let his numbers, and his victories, speak for themselves.
"I think my career has been very consistent in yards passing per game, completions," he said. "To me, the true judgment was what the coaches saw. I felt like I answered the critics there by playing well. I take pride in my two seasons there. We were 10-6 the first year, I was 7-4 as a starter the second. You could say it [the parting] was mutual; it was time to move on. It was the first time I could become a free agent. I wanted to go to a place where I had a chance to win, a place that was sound and first class where I'd have the chance to make the playoffs consistently."
Johnson also knows about perseverance. He didn't play a down in his first two seasons in Minnesota, and didn't start until his fifth season. After mostly seeing mop-up action behind Warren Moon in '94, he asked the Vikings if he could play in the NFL's developmental European League, and he was assigned to the London Monarchs, arguably the major turning point in his career.
"I needed game time," Johnson said. "It was kind of a blessing in disguise. I needed to make plays, and I needed to make mistakes and learn from those mistakes. . . . We slept in bunk beds in an old police academy. There were dirty floors, broken glass. But it was one of the greatest decisions I ever made."
This season Johnson has thrived under Gruden, just as his friend Gannon did the previous four seasons. Johnson admits it took awhile to get used to Gruden's complicated offense, but over the second half of the season he was arguably the best quarterback in the NFC, if not the league, challenged for that distinction only by Gannon's performance.
"Offensively, we had eight new starters learning a new system," Johnson said. "What's neat about us is that we went 3-1 in each quarter of the season. We were 6-2 at the half and 6-2 in the second half. We really picked it up offensively in Week 8 or 9. We started to know the system better and make some plays. I think we've been very, very effective in all three phases, and that's why we're here today."