TAMPA — When is the wildcat not just the wildcat?
Apparently when Josh Johnson is running it.
The backup quarterback was unveiled Sunday in the Bucs' version of the wildcat, a system that has become widely used in the NFL, ripping off a 14-yard gain that sparked a touchdown drive.
But that play, on which Johnson raced around the right end, might have been a preview of a bigger phase of the offense, one that provides many possibilities for a unit that is showing the potential to be prolific.
In Tampa Bay, the wildcat isn't merely the wildcat, a formation in which the player possessing the ball is capable of running anything in the playbook.
"We just call it me being a quarterback," Johnson said. "It's a more advanced wildcat, I guess, because we can do a lot more out of it."
Though most teams use the formation almost exclusively for running plays — snapping the ball directly to a running back who lines up in the shotgun formation — Johnson's blend of running ability, receiver-caliber speed and conventional quarterback skills make him a particularly effective wildcat wild card. His presence gives offensive coordinator Greg Olson options that range from the standard option run to a garden-variety drop-back pass.
The play-call can change at the line of scrimmage based on how the defense reacts to the unexpected insertion of Johnson into the lineup.
"I can make any (audible) I want to," Johnson said. "(Olson) can call any play he wants when I'm back there. It's not like I have to run the ball. But (the defense) has to worry about stopping that.
"It's a way of me being able to use my legs, but at the same time, we can do other things out of it as well. It's going to be hard for teams to game plan for it."
An example of the wildcat giving teams pause came against Atlanta on Nov. 7. The Bucs trotted Johnson onto the field, intending to have him run a play. The Falcons promptly called timeout, during which the Bucs brought starter Josh Freeman back into the game.
"If I can cause a defensive coordinator to take three hours out of his week to game plan for one play, that's a win for us," Johnson said. "That's something he has to worry about on Sunday, and it might open up something else."
Johnson draws parallels between what the Bucs have in store and what the Eagles did last season with quarterbacks Donovan McNabb and Michael Vick. Before McNabb was traded to the Redskins in the offseason, he often gave way to Vick and his wildcat-style package of plays that kept defenses guessing.
Johnson said he admires Vick because Vick is changing perceptions of so-called running quarterbacks (Johnson doesn't like the label), proving that teams can win without a classic drop-back passer.
But don't expect to see the Bucs run the wildcat regularly. They more likely will use it in small doses to maintain the element of surprise.
"There's definitely a place for that as (Johnson) continues to grow," Olson said. "We've seen him in practice, and we're excited. We know Josh Freeman has gotten better every week, but we see Josh Johnson improving every week in his decision-making skills and how he's throwing the football. As you saw on that run, he's an explosive player. … We'll continue to expand upon that (wildcat) package."
The strategy has a drawback: It takes the ball out of Freeman's hands. But Freeman, who has a tight bond with Johnson, is in favor of it.
"I'd love to see (Johnson) out there," Freeman said. "(Because of) the combination of pure athletic skill and his mind-set, Josh Johnson is a weapon."
As the backup, Johnson's opportunities will be sporadic. But with the help of quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt, Johnson is developing despite his limited playing time.
"Being in the role I'm in, I feel I've become a better player because it helped me hone my focus," said Johnson, a fifth-round pick out of San Diego in 2008. "(In college), I was always a starter. I could use the flow of the game to allow me to get myself right. But learning from Alex how to stay honed in on things and being in the position I've been in has helped me.
"Every time I step on the field, I'm in the moment, like it's my last play."
When it comes to Johnson and the wildcat, it seems Tampa Bay has hardly seen the last of it.
Stephen F. Holder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.