An apparent interest in Jaguars quarterback Mark Brunell seems to suggest that the Bucs were prepared to kick Brad Johnson overboard just one year after he quarterbacked them to an NFL championship.
Tampa Bay is believed to be among the teams secretly interested in trading for Brunell, and the Bucs reportedly were planning to pursue him as their starting quarterback if he had become a free agent.
General manager Bruce Allen expressed his interest in acquiring Brunell in discussions with Leigh Steinberg at the agent's annual Super Bowl party in Houston two weeks ago.
Steinberg, who represents Brunell, has begun talks with the Redskins' chief negotiator, the first step in what appears likely to result in a trade of the 11-year veteran.
But Steinberg has little doubt that the Bucs were prepared to be a big player for Brunell in free agency.
"In deference to Brad Johnson, had Mark made it to free agency _ again, in deference to Brad _ I believe Tampa would've been a team that showed a great deal of interest," Steinberg said Wednesday.
"In terms of a trade, Mark's No. 1 criteria is to be a starter on a team with a chance to win a Super Bowl, and that certainly fits the mold with Jon Gruden and the Bucs."
Though Steinberg said he had no knowledge of talks the Bucs might have had with the Jaguars regarding a trade for Brunell, he believes a few teams might have been reluctant to reveal their interest to avoid an unwanted reaction from their starting quarterbacks.
Johnson struggled down the stretch, throwing nine interceptions in the last four games. As a pure drop-back passer, he is not as elusive as the scrambling Brunell.
But twice during the Senior Bowl workouts in Mobile, Ala., last month, Gruden publicly and privately made assurances that Johnson would be the starting quarterback in 2004, first to Johnson's agent, Phil Williams, and later in a story that appeared in the Times.
Now it seems possible that Gruden may not have wanted to upset Johnson if the Bucs were unable to acquire Brunell. A trade for the 33-year-old quarterback cannot be made until March 3.
The Redskins appear to have the best chance of trading for Brunell, who dined with coach Joe Gibbs in St. Augustine on Monday night. Miami, San Diego and Dallas were considered contenders. But the Dolphins, who don't own a second-round pick, are turning their attention to Texans quarterback Drew Henson.
Representatives from about 15 teams, including the Bucs, are expected to attend Henson's workout in Houston today.
"Jacksonville gave us permission to talk with the coach (Gibbs) at Washington and we're in the process of beginning with Miami," Steinberg said. "San Diego made it known of their interest in the press. But other teams have not been as public so as not to compromise their quarterback situation."
Where that leaves Brad Johnson, 35, is anyone's guess. Williams had no comment on the Bucs' efforts to sign Brunell. Tampa Bay already faces the prospect of having to absorb a salary cap hit with the expected trade or release of receiver Keyshawn Johnson.
Allen is close to reaching agreements on restructuring the contracts of defensive end Simeon Rice and cornerback Ronde Barber, according to their agents, helping the team to get under the projected $78.7-million salary cap.
And certainly, the Bucs have needs larger than quarterback.
One intriguing possibility is running back Charlie Garner, who is considering paying the Raiders a $400,000 buyout to enter free agency. Garner, who turns 32 on Friday, is expected to be pursued by the Bucs, Lions and Redskins.
Ramsey, Redskins clear air
One day after Patrick Ramsey expressed concerns to the Redskins about their pursuit of Brunell, coach Joe Gibbs held a long meeting with the second-year quarterback.
As the Redskins move closer to acquiring Brunell, Gibbs addressed Ramsey's main concern: that the three-time Pro Bowl selection would be penciled in as the starter.
Neither side provided details about their discussion at Redskins Park in Ashburn, Va., but Gibbs and Ramsey said they emerged with a better understanding.
"Coach and I talked. I told him how I felt about everything," Ramsey said Wednesday shortly after the meeting. "We're both, I guess, more clear today than we were yesterday on the situation, and I think we came to an understanding."
ARIZONA OVERHAUL: New Cardinals coach Dennis Green is so certain Josh McCown will be his starter in 2004, he is downplaying the chance Arizona will draft a quarterback with its No. 3 pick.
Other returning Cardinals apparently have some proving to do before they keep their jobs, though, Green indicated.
His list of players assured first-string status was a short one: McCown, wide receiver Anquan Boldin, linebackers Ronald McKinnon and Raynoch Thompson and center Pete Kendall.
Conspicuous by their absence were guard Leonard Davis, tackles L.J. Shelton and Anthony Clement, safety Dexter Jackson, tight end Freddie Jones and running back Marcel Shipp.
BEARS: Rob Boras was named tight ends coach after five seasons at UNLV, where he was offensive coordinator the past three years.
GIANTS: Tight end Jeremy Shockey, who missed the final seven games of the season after spraining his left knee, had surgery to relieve mild irritation in the joint. The prognosis is excellent, team trainer Ronnie Barnes said.
_ Information from Times wires was used in this report.