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Sure the job is his . . . for now

Brad Johnson is the Bucs' starting quarterback. Coach Jon Gruden has said as much. Johnson is his man.

"He's our starter," Gruden said the other week.

Yep, and Leonard Hamilton is undefeated at Florida State.

The Bucs began quarterback camp Monday and from all indications, Johnson has about as much job security as INS commissioner James Ziglar. You get the feeling that what Gruden really meant to say was, "Brad is our starter uh, for now."

Hey, nobody's saying Johnson is going to be holding a clipboard next season, but if I were him, I wouldn't, for instance, run out and get personalized car tags that read STARTER or NO. 1 QB.

Not after the Bucs signed free-agent quarterback Rob Johnson. And not after hearing Gruden repeatedly gush over backup Shaun King. There are several ways you can interpret those moves, and none are good.

After all, Brad has seen this movie before. Twice.

He thought he was going to start in Minnesota after he came back from that injured right leg in 1998, but the Vikes stuck with Randall Cunningham and shipped Brad to Washington.

He thought his job there was safe, but after another injury and a two-interception game against the Giants in 2000, he found out otherwise.

He is doing all the right things this time, keeping his head up and his focus on his own skills. He has no choice except to believe Gruden when he says he's the team's top quarterback, a veteran and "a proven winner."

"I never worry about those things," Brad said Monday. "I just look at what I do, and that's what I'm doing now, just trying to learn as much as I can."

But, don't doubt for a minute that Brad doesn't see what's going on around him. He has been in this league too long to miss these kinds of things.

For instance, do you really think the Bucs talked Rob Johnson into signing here instead of Houston by promising him he'll get to stand in Brad's shadow just as he did in Doug Flutie's?

Of course not. More likely he signed because the Bucs assured him he'd get a shot at starting.

Do you think Gruden has been stroking King's ego merely to re-energize him? Perhaps, but why get him all hyped if you've already decided on Brad?

Unless, of course, you haven't already decided on Brad. And why would he? Gruden has yet to see Brad up close and in action. Sure, he has seen loads of film, but this quarterback camp is his first intimate look.

Plus, with all due respect, it's not as if Brad rewrote the team record books this past season. He had his moments (remember how he took that hit, yet still got off that winning touchdown pass to Keyshawn Johnson against the Lions?). And he showed remarkable toughness going the entire season without significant injury while playing behind a suspect offensive line.

But he was sacked too often (a career-high 44 times), which was partly the line's fault, and he didn't make enough big plays. In the end, the Bucs weren't noticeably better with him than the season before with King. With Brad, the Bucs were 9-7 (although the regular-season finale loss to the Eagles deserves an asterisk). With King, they were 10-6.

So, if you're Brad, this is not the time to rest on your laurels. It's not the time to bring up your 1999 Pro Bowl selection or your winning record as a starter or anything else you've done in the past.

Rather, it's a time to go to work. It's a time to try to prove you're the best man for the job.

Most of this quarterback camp involves classroom work, but if you're Brad, you're sitting in the first row and soaking up everything you can about Gruden's version of the West Coast offense. You're asking questions and taking detailed notes. Knowing Brad, he's doing just that.

After all, the first step in winning anything is being prepared.

Brad's opportunities on the field will come soon enough. There's a full-squad minicamp late next week, another after next month's draft and then training camp, where the job likely will be won or lost.

But to hear the Bucs tell it, Brad has little to worry about. He's the starter.

For now.