There are several explanations why the Washington Redskins have
had the NFL's most explosive offense through the first three
weeks of the season. For instance, after giving up 61 sacks last
year, the line has allowed only three in 1999. Then there's the
fact that the Redskins have an NFC-best turnover differential of
plus-7. Also, fourth-year back Stephen Davis has rushed for 328
yards and leads the league with eight touchdowns. Plus, four
players have 10 or more catches, including wideout Michael
Westbrook, who's averaging 23.2 yards on 13 receptions. Finally,
there's coach Norv Turner, who has long been considered one of
the league's brightest offensive minds.
"No!" says Washington's passing game coordinator, Terry Robiskie,
holding his hand up to stop the run of examples. "The key to our
success is our quarterback, Brad Johnson."
But what about Davis?
"It's Brad Johnson."
October 3, 1999
Yeah, but the line is....
"It's Brad Johnson."
Sure, but the wide receivers are....
"It's Brad Johnson."
O.K., but Turner's coaching deserves....
"It's all Brad Johnson," says Robiskie. "You hate to put that
label on one guy, but in the history of professional sports, one
guy can make the difference. Look at Michael Jordan or Reggie
Jackson. For us that one guy is Brad. He's the kind of player
who could lead a solid team with a good scheme right to the
That seems a bit farfetched. Then again, so are the 2-1
Redskins' offensive numbers. Even after a vanilla performance on
Sunday, in a gutsy 27-20 win over the New York Jets at Giants
Stadium, Washington's top-rated offense was still averaging 37
points, 423 yards and 26 first downs a game. Johnson had
completed 57 of 89 passes for 854 yards, five touchdowns and no
interceptions. His league-leading passer rating was an
That's the kind of production the Skins were looking for when,
last Feb. 15, they traded first- and third-round picks in the
1999 draft plus a second-round selection in 2000 to the
Minnesota Vikings for Johnson, who had been relegated to Randall
Cunningham's expensive backup after suffering a broken right leg
in the second game of the '98 season.
After Johnson's first minicamp, Washington's front office and
coaches knew they'd been wise to make the deal. Standing in the
huddle as a fill-in center, Robiskie watched in awe as Johnson
took over the team. "I felt something I hadn't felt since my
playing days," says Robiskie, who's in his 23rd year as an NFL
player or coach. "There's a presence, a confidence, to Brad,
like he knows he's going to be the difference. I've been around
some great quarterbacks, but the only other guys who carried
themselves like Brad were Kenny Stabler and Bob Griese."
On the way to the line during games, Johnson will tip teammates
to keys in coverages or blitz schemes that he sees. After a
50-21 romp over the New York Giants in Week 2--the most points
scored against New York in 33 years--former Washington
quarterback and Hall of Famer Sonny Jurgensen, who's now one of
the Skins' radio broadcasters, said Johnson "saved" at least 20
plays by giving such tips. On Sunday, trailing the Jets 7-0 in
the second quarter, Washington broke its huddle at its own
24-yard line, and Johnson tapped second-year tight end Stephen
Alexander and said, "If the Jets are in a deep zone with
[coverage] help on the side, I'm hitting you down the middle."
That play went for 21 yards and lit a fire under the Redskins,
who kicked a field goal and then went 74 yards in five plays on
their next possession to go ahead 10-7.
Another beneficiary of Johnson's prescience was third-year
wideout Albert Connell. Johnson and Turner knew that because
Connell is a step faster than Westbrook, he's the more likely of
the two to draw pass interference calls on balls thrown deep.
With that in mind Johnson and Connell mercilessly picked on
cornerback Ray Mickens, Connell's former teammate at Texas A&M
who last Friday had signed a four-year, $17 million contract
extension. "He had to hold me, because I was blowing by him all
day," said Connell, who finished with five catches for 75 yards.
"Finally, I said, 'Ray, $17 million? You've got to start earning
Mickens was flagged four times for interference against Connell,
including three calls in the final 8:04 that helped the Redskins
score 14 points. Johnson finished with mortal numbers--17 of 28
for 241 yards--but he was error-free, and his poise and savvy made
the difference. "Leadership isn't yelling after something goes
wrong," says Turner. "Leadership is managing your group to make
sure each person is in a position to do well. Brad succeeds
because he is curious about every aspect of his job. With all the
great players I have ever known, it always has had more to do
with makeup and desire than with football."
Drafted in the ninth round out of Florida State in 1992, Johnson
supplanted Warren Moon as the Vikings' starter four years later
and led Minnesota to consecutive playoff berths, only to miss
the '97 postseason--and most of the Vikings' march to the '98
NFC Championship Game--with injuries to his neck, leg and thumb.
Sitting out was torture for Johnson, who's so competitive that
he and his wife of seven months, Nikkie, had to throw out their
chessboard and the game Taboo, he says, "before divorce
Except for a nine-day break for his wedding and honeymoon,
Johnson was at Redskin Park nearly every day during the
off-season. Since his junior year of college he has also worked
with Alex Serrano, a Chilean-born sports psychologist based in
Santiago. Serrano tutors Johnson in breathing techniques,
visualization and cognitive skills designed to improve decision
making and reaction time. Last week, while chewing on a granola
bar after practice, Johnson recalled his first few sessions with
Serrano in Tallahassee, Fla., when teammates would gather around
and make fun of the pair. "You know what?" he said. "I guarantee
no one's laughing at me anymore."