TAMPA — It's difficult to envision many quarterback matchups in which resumes could be more disparate than Sunday's game pitting Josh Johnson against Donovan McNabb.
The Bucs' 2008 fifth-round draft pick is set to make his second start, this time against the Eagles' 1999 first-round pick, who is the franchise's career leader in passing yards, completions and touchdown passes. McNabb is set to return from a broken rib that sidelined him for two games.
Suddenly, Johnson squares off against a player he has admired.
"I've watched him his whole career," Johnson said. "He's a special player. I feel like it's an honor just to go out and finally see him live and be on the other side of the field."
After a rough first start last weekend at Washington, Johnson can benefit from a good example. He arguably played too timidly and lacked the sort of dynamic plays McNabb has made a career of — though that's probably expected given the difference in age (23 versus 32) and experience. Johnson finished 13 of 22 for 106 yards with one touchdown and one interception for a 67.6 passer rating.
Johnson admires much about McNabb, but the 11-year veteran's ability to keep his cool is particularly impressive.
"You just watch his poise and you watch his playmaking ability and you watch how he leads that offense," Johnson said. "It seems like he's always in control when you put on the film. He's never flustered, and he's always under control. He's always doing something right at the right time."
Certainly there are worse examples. McNabb ranks third in victories among active quarterbacks with more than 100 starts (a .647 winning percentage). Only the Patriots' Tom Brady (.782) and the Colts' Peyton Manning (.672) rank higher.
As for McNabb's more tangible qualities, Bucs coach Raheem Morris said Johnson can "look at how the guy manages a football game (and) how a guy like that has that much success in the league and how he transitions himself from a runner to a passer to a down-the-field player to a pocket quarterback to now whatever he wants to be."
Johnson is far from a complete NFL quarterback, but his coaches are optimistic they can work with his skills. The problem is that the development will have to be on the fly. The Bucs, who made Kansas State quarterback Josh Freeman their No. 1 pick in April, spent the overwhelming majority of the offseason and preseason determining a winner between Byron Leftwich and the since-traded Luke McCown.
"It's our fault," offensive coordinator Greg Olson said. But, "the expectations for them remain the same. You've got to go in, and you've got to play. It's unfortunate that you weren't able to get a lot of reps in training camp, but they're both real solid players, and they're both very talented players. I think they're up for the challenge."
With another week of practice with the starting offense, Johnson's timing should theoretically be a bit better, too.
"Going back and looking at the film, he threw the ball well," Olson said. "I just think there were times when, going through his progressions, he was a little quick and missed some opportunities."
It's not just Johnson's coaches who think he has talent. McNabb knows all about him through former Eagles receiver Michael Gasperson, a college teammate of Johnson's at San Diego.
"I haven't had a chance to really watch him ever since he got the (starting) job, but I watched him a little bit at San Diego," McNabb said. "I watched him in the preseason, and I heard a lot about him ever since he's been there. Guys have really talked about him and raved about him and the type of talent he was."
Sunday, Johnson will get the chance to show McNabb something in person. But it sounds like he wouldn't be surprised if McNabb is the one who puts on the show.
The Eagles "are an explosive offense," Johnson said. "He's (at) the helm of it, and he's one of the top quarterbacks in the league, one of the guys I've been watching my whole life."
Stephen F. Holder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.