The trade that brought Pro Bowl wide receiver Terrell Owens to the Baltimore Ravens in March was a bold, headline-grabbing move for a team that was looking to improve the NFL's worst passing offense. Just one problem: Owens refused to report to Baltimore and talked his way into a trade to Philadelphia.
The trade that brought wide receiver Kevin Johnson to Baltimore in April was far less flashy. The Ravens sent a fourth-round draft pick to the Jacksonville Jaguars in exchange for the reliable six-year veteran on the second day of the NFL draft. Johnson was thrilled: He used the word "excited" nine times as he talked to reporters during a brief telephone interview on the day of the trade, and he wore a purple shirt to the news conference that formally introduced him as a Raven.
"Things happen in this league," said George Kokinis, the Ravens' director of pro personnel. "If it doesn't go one way, you go to your next plan. [Johnson became] available, then that was our best option. We're happy to have him."
Baltimore won 10 games and was AFC North champion despite having one of the NFL's most one-dimensional offenses. The Ravens were the league's best on the ground (167.1 yards per game) and worst in the air (140.9 yards per game). No team attempted fewer passes than the Ravens (415); no team had more rushing attempts (552).
At Johnson's introductory news conference, offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh explained the domino effect of the trade: "We're going to expand the passing game, as everybody is dying to see ... He's going to complement [wide receiver] Travis Taylor, take a little bit of pressure off of him, which in turn would take a little pressure off of [Pro Bowl tight end] Todd Heap, which in turn would take a little pressure off of [Pro Bowl running back] Jamal Lewis, and the ultimate goal is to take pressure off of me."
The Ravens' offensive philosophy is not going to change this year. Jamal Lewis, who rushed for the second-highest total in NFL history in 2003 (2,066 yards), is still the first option.
But what needs to change is the offensive efficiency. The Ravens want second-year quarterback Kyle Boller to improve on his AFC-worst completion percentage (51.8 percent), and they want Johnson and Taylor to be productive when they catch the ball. The best way to measure the production of the Ravens' receivers is not by number of catches, but by yards gained after the catch.
"I don't know if we're going to have a receiver with 90 or 100 catches because we give the ball to Jamal a lot, and Todd Heap is a presence," Cavanaugh said. "Our receivers need to be productive when they're catching the ball. If I had to put a number on it, I'm guessing that if [Johnson and Taylor] both came up with 50 to 60 catches, that 110-120 catches out of that group of receivers would be pretty good, based on what we've had in the past.
"If it's more than that, it means we're throwing the ball efficiently and getting more opportunities for them. That's really what it's going to come down to. They can help create some of their own opportunities by getting some yards after the catch."
The Ravens tried to get Johnson last year when he was waived after falling out of favor with Browns Coach Butch Davis.
Sixteen teams claimed Johnson, and he was awarded to Jacksonville. He became available when the Jaguars selected receiver Reggie Williams with the ninth overall pick in the 2004 draft. He made an immediate impression in minicamp; he fit in well with his new teammates, he worked hard, and he caught everything thrown his way.
"He's as advertised," Coach Brian Billick said. "He's very consistent. Great hands, good explosion. He's going to be a good solid go-to guy that, if you get the ball near him, he's going to come up with it and make a play."
The 5-foot-11, 195-pound Johnson doesn't have Owens's size or explosiveness. He doesn't have great speed, and he isn't the deep threat the Ravens need. But what he does have is a pair of dependable hands -- "The best set of hands," according to Baltimore cornerback Corey Fuller -- and toughness, a swagger that the Ravens' passing game wants.
"He's one of those guys that's going to come back to the sideline and tell you, 'I'm open,' even if he's not open," Boller said. "That's good. I like that. You want a guy that wants the ball."
"Kevin wants to be in the middle of it," Ravens quarterbacks-wide receivers coach David Shaw said. "He wants balls thrown his way, balls run his way; he wants to make a couple of key blocks, make a couple of big plays, score some touchdowns."
Johnson has been remarkably consistent and durable over his five-year career; he has caught at least one pass in every game he has played (79 and counting).
He has 332 catches, 13 more than Owens had in the first five years of his career. (Owens, however, has the edge in both yardage -- 4,758 to 4,089 -- and touchdowns -- 43 to 24.) Johnson has averaged 66 catches per season, and in the Billick era, only one Baltimore receiver has caught more than 66 passes in a season: Qadry Ismail in 1999 (68 catches for 1,105 yards) and 2001 (74 for 1,059).
"I love catching the football, I love making a lot of plays, I love having a lot of catches," Johnson said. "But you have to understand the situation that you're in, this is a run-oriented team. If they throw me 15 balls a game, I'm not going to turn them away. If I can have 120 yards a game, I'm not going to turn it away. I'm going to take whatever the coaches want me to have. I know I can play with the best receivers in the league."
The affable Taylor has had a solid career. He is poised to become the Ravens' all-time leading receiver; he ranks third in career receptions (170, 21 catches behind leader Ismail) and third in career receiving yardage (2,337, 482 yards behind Ismail).
Yet the former Florida standout is viewed as something of an underachiever because he hasn't put up the numbers expected of someone selected 10th overall in the 2000 draft. His averages of 43 catches and 584 yards per season pale in comparison with the production of the two other receivers taken ahead of him: Cincinnati's Peter Warrick (fourth overall pick) has averaged 63 catches and 671 yards a season, and Pittsburgh's Plaxico Burress (eighth overall pick) has averaged 57 catches and 867 yards.
"Travis has a lot of skills," Fuller said. "I just don't think Travis -- in my honest opinion, he hasn't jumped off the way he wanted to as the 10th pick, and I think he's in that stage right now where he believes he can do it."
One reason for optimism is the relationships that Taylor has forged with Boller and Johnson. He spent much of the offseason working out with Boller in Owings Mills, Md., and Johnson joined them soon after he signed. It was a welcome change for Taylor, who has played with eight different quarterbacks (two per season) and has lined up alongside five different starting receivers during his career in Baltimore.
"I didn't know what it's like in the offseason to have [the same] quarterback," Taylor said. "But we got to experience that. We're definitely building something ... [Johnson is] teaching me a lot of things about the game as well, just how to attack [defensive backs], attack certain routes. We're just sharing our philosophies."
Taylor had his most productive season in 2002, when he led the Ravens with 869 yards and six touchdowns on 61 catches (Heap had a team-high 68 receptions). But his production dropped sharply last year, to 632 yards and three touchdowns on 39 catches, and he had 11 drops.
"I'm a big defender of his," Cavanaugh said of Taylor. "I think last year, the answer was he didn't get the opportunities he had [in past seasons]. Granted, he's had some drops ... But more than anything, he just needs some opportunities. That doesn't mean that he has to get himself open more, or Kyle has to throw him the ball more -- that means the whole offense needs to be more efficient."