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Veteran QB must adapt or sit

Brad Johnson, once again, is Tampa Bay's quarterback. And, today, you've got to agree it makes sense.

Just as next month, when the Bucs are 2-4, it might make sense to hand the offense over to Chris Simms for good.

It is a matter of timing and an issue of perception. Bring the young guy in for three quarters and you're looking for a spark. Bring him in for the rest of the season and you're looking for a diversion.

Let's face it, the season is not yet lost. The defense has looked too good for Jon Gruden to throw an arm up in surrender. One play in either game and, remarkably, the Bucs could be division leaders this morning.

Of course, that's probably a mirage. You know it. I know it. The Bucs even know it. But the season is too young to acknowledge otherwise.

Simms is the future. And to give him the keys to the huddle now would be the same as admitting the future is all that matters.

Gruden cannot do that. At least not yet. Not in September. Not with a roster that has been remade in the image of The Golden Girls and has precious few tomorrows to dream about.

Simms may have a better chance of winning a game completely on his own, but he also is more liable to lose a game with a silly mistake.

For all the good Simms did Sunday, the Bucs could have used a closer upon passing midfield. Simms fumbled on the 1 and threw an interception on the 26. He lost a fumble on the 46 and took a critical sack on the 6.

"There are seven or eight plays in the game he is going to look back at and be stunned at what he did and why he did it," Gruden said. "He has to grow from that."

So it is back to Johnson. Back to a safer, saner, more predictable offense. Back to a plan that once brought the Bucs their greatest success.

In the mess that has been this month, it is easy to forget the heights Johnson is capable of reaching. This is a quarterback who has taken three franchises to the playoffs. He is one of five active quarterbacks who have won a Super Bowl. He is smart, and he is tough. He is also in need of assistance.

If he has not constructed a scoring drive with the same skills you saw during the playoff run of 2002, it is because he has not been given the same tools. He has no speed at receiver. No ferocity on the offensive line. No teammate who makes a defensive coordinator sweat.

"He has been victimized by a lot of circumstances. The lineup has been a revolving door," Gruden said. "His style, the way he plays, is a very system-oriented quarterback, a very disciplined player. With all of the changes, it has inhibited him to some degree."

Johnson is a caretaker, not an inventor. Give him a halfway decent offense and he will run it smoothly. He will keep all the pieces in the right places and make sure the mistakes are kept to a minimum.

But if he has nothing to work with, Johnson has less to offer.

His feet are not nimble enough to create opportunities. His arm is not powerful enough to find the slim space between receiver and disaster.

When he is being praised, it is never for his athletic feats. It is always his acumen. His decision-making. And that's a problem with the current state of this offense. There are no good decisions to be made. A quarterback is choosing between the play that looks flimsy and the one that looks ghastly.

The offensive line has been so shaky, the Bucs kept running backs and tight ends in to block early in Sunday's game. That meant only two or three receivers, none of whom seem capable of eluding a cornerback.

"It's not all Brad," general manager Bruce Allen said. "We have to protect Brad. We have to provide him with better situations. It's everything going on around him. We aren't in synch yet."

The problem is there are no miracles to be found this week. The receivers are not going to get quicker and Charlie Garner is not going to get younger.

That means Johnson must press the issue. He already has lost his job once, and the next time will likely be permanent.

Johnson always has been smart enough to recognize the difference between a calculated risk and a reckless gamble. And he has erred on the side of caution.

Now, he needs to be nudged in the other direction. He needs to realize scoring chances are at a premium and he cannot let one pass by without taking a real shot. Sure, it goes against his nature. It defies who he has been. But we've already seen the alternative, and it's not pretty.

Johnson was never the type to worry about gobs of yardage because he had a strong winning percentage and a high passer rating as evidence of his value.

Today, that doesn't work. He has lost 11 of his past 18 starts. He is 29th among 32 starters in passer rating. He is losing his sense of worth.

You know, in a way, Gruden will not decide the fate of Tampa Bay's starting quarterback. We already know he wants Johnson to have the job.

As long as the Bucs have the illusion of playoff possibilities, Johnson will have a place on the field.

It's up to him whether he stays there.

INTRODUCING . . . THE NEWEST QUARTERBACK

How recent quarterbacks fared in their Bucs debuts:

DATE OPP CP-AT-YDS TD INT RES

Chris Simms Sunday Seahawks 21-32-175 0 1 10-6 L

Brad Johnson + Sept, 9, 2001 Cowboys 25-34-195 0 1 10-6 W

Shaun King Nov. 28, 1999 Seahawks 3 -7-32 1 0 16-3 W

Trent Dilfer Sept. 25, 1994 Packers 5-10-73 0 0 30-3 L

Craig Erickson Dec. 13, 1992 Falcons 4-8-27 0 0 35-7 L

Vinny Testaverde Sept. 20, 1987 Bears 1-4-14 0 0 20-3 L

+ Started

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