Formula For Success Other NFL teams would be wise to follow the patient lead of the Vikings, who took four-plus years to groom Brad Johnson

Aug. 17, 1998
Aug. 17, 1998

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Aug. 17, 1998

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Formula For Success Other NFL teams would be wise to follow the patient lead of the Vikings, who took four-plus years to groom Brad Johnson

Talk about culture shock. Here was Brad Johnson--a meek, gawky
Southern kid who had never dreamed of being in Minnesota until
the Vikings plucked him in the ninth round of the 1992
draft--standing on the practice field at his first minicamp. In
came the play from the sideline: Ax Double Right Spear, Larry
735 H Split Right Pump. At Florida State, Johnson had been
accustomed to calls like Right 470 Dip, where the flanker would
run a 15-yard out and the split end a post pattern. "I couldn't
remember the play well enough to even say it in the huddle," he

This is an article from the Aug. 17, 1998 issue

No one minded much. Johnson was fifth on the depth chart, and
little was expected of him. But coach Dennis Green was new too,
and he saw that Johnson had the arm strength, accuracy and
smarts needed to eventually run his version of the West Coast
offense. In most other camps Johnson would have been an August
cut, but because Green saw potential, Johnson got a chance to
absorb the system. He remained on the Vikings' roster, but for
two years he didn't take a snap in a game and was never higher
than third on the depth chart. "I couldn't have managed it,"
says Johnson, who threw 73 passes during his first four years in
the league. "For me, it was the best situation, even though I
still wish to this day they'd have let me do more in practice. I
don't think I threw a pass to Cris Carter for four years."

But over the last two seasons Johnson has emerged as one of the
NFL's hot quarterbacks. After taking over as Minnesota's starter
midway through the 1996 season, he led the Vikings to a 12-7
record, only to be sidelined last Dec. 1 by a neck injury that
caused him to lose strength and feeling in his right (i.e.,
throwing) hand.

Johnson underwent surgery to treat that injury, but now at close
to full strength he'll enter 1998 as one of the league's best
passers and certainly as a textbook example of how to develop an
NFL quarterback. The formula: Keep the same coach, keep the same
system (in his seven years with the Vikings, Green has hardly
changed the terminology), get the player an internship overseas
if you have to and don't rush him. Says Dallas Cowboys
first-year coach Chan Gailey, "Sometimes we forget the most
important thing about developing quarterbacks: They aren't born,
they're made."

In the spring of 1995 Johnson was the beneficiary of two
fortuitous events. On draft day, as the Vikings prepared to make
a second-round pick, new quarterbacks coach Ray Sherman lobbied
for Colorado signal-caller Kordell Stewart. The defensive staff
wanted Florida State cornerback Corey Fuller. Green chose
Fuller. Oblivious to it all, Johnson was toiling for the London
Monarchs of the World League--in what were less than ideal
career conditions. Skeptical of the protection his line would
provide and wary of pass rushers he might encounter, Johnson was
on the phone two hours before his first game with Lloyd's of
London, buying injury insurance.

"Even though we had to eat grilled-cheese sandwiches every day
and live in an old police academy," Johnson says, "playing in
the World League was so valuable for me, because I hadn't been a
regular quarterback for nine years, since my 1986 high school
season. My offensive coordinator in London, Lionel Taylor, let
me call my own plays, and you can't believe what that did for
me. I became more assertive, on the field and off. My confidence
shot up, because I was thinking down-and-distance, thinking what
play would be best. All of a sudden, guys look at you like you
know what you're doing."

When he returned to the U.S., Johnson was the Vikings' No. 2
quarterback, behind Warren Moon. By the time he got his first
significant NFL playing time, after Moon was injured in the 1996
opener, Johnson couldn't have been more ready. His first start
came the next week, against the Atlanta Falcons. "I'd learned
for four years totally without pressure," he says. "I worked. I
waited my turn. I got better. I grew up, physically and
mentally. I was confident and ready. I knew it might be my only
chance, but once I got out there, everything worked."

Johnson threw for 275 yards in a 23-17 Minnesota victory over the
Falcons, and he was named NFC Offensive Player of the Week. By
mid-November he was entrenched as the starter, and he finished
the season as the NFL's third-rated quarterback. In December of
that year the Vikings rewarded him with a four-year, $15.5
million contract extension. Now, assuming there are no setbacks
following surgery to repair a herniated disk, he should be
Minnesota's quarterback for years to come.

Johnson grew up in the North Carolina town of Black Mountain,
about 60 miles from the hometown of another NFL quarterback, the
New Orleans Saints' Heath Shuler, who starred at Tennessee.
"Heath didn't know me," says Johnson, "but everyone in Black
Mountain knew who Heath was. People used to drive 90 minutes
just to watch him play."

Today, their roles are reversed. Shuler, the third pick in the
1994 draft, was rushed into service by the Washington Redskins,
who gave up on him after three trying seasons. Now 26, he is
fighting to salvage his career as a backup to journeyman Billy
Joe Hobert. "I feel for Heath," says Johnson, who works summer
football camps with Shuler. "He was always under the gun, always
being critiqued, from the moment he got to Washington. A
late-round guy like me, an underdog, I had time. One thing I've
learned about this position is you'd better have time to learn

The moral of Johnson's story? "I guess you can never have enough
patience," he says. Tell that to the NFL.