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Tampa Bay Buccaneers see Josh Johnson as promising backup quarterback

MIAMI

Tired eyes and weathered features are not a job requirement. Just a preference.

Just as gray stubble and jagged scars are not a necessity. They're merely an added bonus.

In a game that favors the young, we seem to like our backup quarterbacks old. It's a comfort thing. Because the news is rarely good when a backup quarterback is required, and so a fan needs that sense of security when the moment arrives.

Think Earl Morrall. Think Jim Plunkett. Think about an aging quarterback's final fling.

Which brings us to the locker nearest the doorway at Sun Life Stadium on Saturday night. Tampa Bay's backup quarterback is pulling a shirt over his perfectly smooth face. Josh Johnson's eyes are bright. His muscles are taut. His student ID is probably still valid.

On a team with a 22-year-old starting quarterback, the Bucs are gambling on a 24-year-old backup. Is it a risk? Sure. Does it have drawbacks? Absolutely. Is it a mistake? Not necessarily.

Think about it. This is a franchise in transition. It is a team in the middle of a rebirth. If starting quarterback Josh Freeman goes down, it's not going to change the Super Bowl landscape. So instead of a backup with a past, why not consider at a quarterback with a future?

"He's a dynamic guy. He's got a strong arm, and he can do great things with his legs," said quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt. "Absolutely, his potential makes him interesting to have around. He brings some different elements, and a different style than Josh (Freeman)."

At this point, no one is suggesting Josh Johnson is a future star in this league. When he replaced veteran Byron Leftwich as Tampa Bay's starting quarterback in early October last season, he was far too raw to be effective. He had trouble recognizing pressures and coverages.

Four weeks into his career as a starting quarterback, he was back on the bench without a victory and with twice as many interceptions as touchdowns. Still, there was enough there to make him worth holding on to. Enough physical ability. Enough eagerness to learn.

"I want to show them I've developed as a passer. That I can stand in there and take the hits. Slide over in the pocket and throw the ball downfield when the opportunity is there," Johnson said. "It's a process, but it's going good."

It's not as if the Bucs are venturing out on a limb by themselves. Tampa Bay is one of 10 teams that appears willing to start the season with a backup quarterback who has zero wins as a starter in the NFL.

Maybe the idea of spending $3 million a year on a backup quarterback is distasteful. Maybe the pool of veterans is that shallow. Maybe grooming a future quarterback is really that appealing.

Whatever the reason, there are teams taking far greater risks than the Bucs. The Packers are a playoff contender, and backup Matt Flynn has thrown 17 passes in his NFL career. The Colts are coming off a Super Bowl, and backup Curtis Painter has a career completion percentage of 28.6. The Patriots are one of the league's premier franchises, and backup Brian Hoyer has never started a game.

"Usually you'll get a veteran to teach guys how to play, but I have the luxury of having a guy like Alex Van Pelt who has been in that backup quarterback role and has been that crusty, old vet," head coach Raheem Morris said. "I'm going to use him as much as I can in that role to groom these young quarterbacks."

In a way, having Johnson and 24-year-old Rudy Carpenter as the only other quarterbacks on the roster may be a good thing for Freeman. When an NFL team is struggling, the cries for a backup quarterback are often deafening. In this case, the division between Nos. 1 and 2 is clear, which should take some of the pressure off Freeman.

"If we got an older guy, it would have to be the right guy. You want it to be a guy who would come in and mentor Josh and not try to unseat him behind the scenes," said offensive coordinator Greg Olson. "Right now, we feel (Van Pelt) gives Josh that mentor-type role that a veteran backup would provide.

"And this gives Josh Johnson a chance to go through training camp and get some reps. His knowledge and comfort level with the offense have grown, and his decision-making has gotten better. He's still maturing and has a ways to go, but he's a hard worker, and he has some ability."

No one is really sure if Josh Johnson has a future as a starter in the NFL, but he is getting an opportunity as a backup. And that's good enough for now.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

Experience helpful, not always required

The days of the crusty old backup quarterback with a crewcut are long gone. Nearly one-third of NFL teams have a backup quarterback who has never won a game as a starter. Here are the backups with the most and the least experience:

The young …

Quarterback team age record

Casey Clausen Panthers 22 0-0

Brian Hoyer Patriots 24 0-0

Caleb Hanie Bears 24 0-0

Matt Flynn Packers 25 0-0

Curtis Painter Colts 25 0-0

Charlie Whitehurst Seahawks 28 0-0

Jim Sorgi Giants 29 0-0

And the youthless

Quarterback team age record

Mark Brunell Jets 39 78-73

Kerry Collins Titans 37 79-91

Jon Kitna Cowboys 37 46-69

Chad Pennington Dolphins 34 43-37

David Carr 49ers 31 23-56

Michael Vick Eagles 30 38-28-1

Byron Leftwich Steelers 30 24-25

Tampa Bay Buccaneers see Josh Johnson as promising backup quarterback 08/15/10 [Last modified: Monday, August 16, 2010 8:22am]

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