November 3, 2010

2002: Brad Johnson Throws for 5 TDs as Bucs Beat Vikings

Under the leadership of defensive-minded Head Coach Tony Dungy, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had gone from being perennial bottom feeders to contenders. However, while they made it to the postseason in four of the five seasons prior to 2002, they got as far as the NFC Championship game once and, in 2000 and ’01, had not gotten beyond the Wild Card playoff round. The problem had been that, while the defense was solid, the offense, directed by a series of coordinators, was conservative and tended to have difficulty scoring points – especially in the postseason. As a result, Dungy was fired following the 2001 season (and of course resurfaced in Indianapolis, where he enjoyed greater success) and was replaced by the more offense-minded Jon Gruden, late of the Oakland Raiders (and after being turned down by Bill Parcells).

Key to the offense was QB Brad Johnson (pictured above), a nine-year NFL veteran in his second season with Tampa Bay. While immobile and not much of a deep passer, he was very accurate on short passes, which made him a good fit in Gruden’s version of the West Coast offense. He also had good leadership skills and toughness. His abilities in the revamped offense were especially evident in a Week 9 matchup against Minnesota.

The Buccaneers were 6-2 as they hosted the Vikings on November 3, 2002 at Raymond James Stadium, but the defense was still largely carrying the club (they had scored just 11 offensive TDs in the eight games) and Johnson had missed the previous contest due to a rib injury. Minnesota, under Head Coach Mike Tice, lost its first four games and was 2-5 coming into the contest, although coming off a good win against Chicago.

Things got off to a good start for Tampa Bay very quickly as safety Jermaine Phillips recovered a fumble by Minnesota WR Nick Davis on the opening kickoff at the Vikings’ 21 yard line. Three plays later, Johnson tossed a 15-yard touchdown pass to WR Karl Williams for a quick 7-0 lead.

The Bucs went on to score on each of their first four possessions. A 12-play, 86-yard drive ended with Johnson completing a two-yard TD pass to TE Rickey Dudley and the score stood at 14-0 after one quarter. Early in the second quarter, Martin Gramatica kicked a 36-yard field goal, and Johnson threw another short touchdown pass of two yards to WR Keyshawn Johnson.

Down 24-0 and still in the second period, the Vikings finally got on the board thanks to a big play as RB Michael Bennett ran for an 85-yard touchdown. 43-year-old Gary Anderson kicked a 26-yard field goal before the quarter was over to cut Tampa Bay’s lead to 24-10 at halftime (Gramatica missed a 40-yard field goal attempt that would have added to the lead).

Brad Johnson tossed a third quarter touchdown pass to Keyshawn Johnson of 19 yards and FB Mike Alstott scored in the fourth quarter on a five-yard reception. The Vikings had two one-yard runs by RB Moe Williams, but Minnesota was never able to mount a credible comeback in the second half – even a successful onside kick led to failure when QB Daunte Culpepper was intercepted by DT Warren Sapp. The Buccaneers won convincingly, 38-24.

For a team that had been considered offensively-challenged, it was an impressive showing. Tampa Bay rolled up 446 yards, to 387 for the Vikings, and only punted once. They gave up no turnovers and Johnson wasn’t sacked (pass protection had been an issue in prior weeks). In addition, Minnesota was hurt by a total of 12 penalties.

Brad Johnson completed 24 of 31 passes for 313 yards and a club-record tying five touchdowns while not being intercepted. Keyshawn Johnson (pictured at left) caught 9 passes for 133 yards and two of the TDs (of his career-high 106 receptions in 2001, only one had been for a score). RB Aaron Stecker carried the ball just once, but it was for a 59-yard gain to lead the team in rushing. Mike Alstott ran for 55 yards on 26 carries and caught three passes for 16 yards, including a TD.

Daunte Culpepper went to the air 29 times for the Vikings, with 18 completions for 225 yards, but had no touchdown passes and surrendered two interceptions. Thanks to the long scoring run, Michael Bennett gained 114 yards on just 10 carries. Moe Williams had the two short rushing touchdowns while gaining 43 yards on 7 attempts, and also led Minnesota with 5 pass receptions, for 24 yards. TE Jim Kleinsasser gained 64 yards on three catches.

Tampa Bay lost only twice more the rest of the way and finished atop the NFC South with a 12-4 record. They finally broke through in the postseason, beating the Eagles in Philadelphia for the NFC Championship (the site of their losses in the preceding two playoff appearances) and defeating Oakland in the Super Bowl. Minnesota went 6-10 for second place in the NFC North.

Brad Johnson led the NFC in passing (92.9 rating) and was among the league leaders in completion percentage (62.3) and touchdown passes (22). He threw for 3049 yards and was intercepted only six times, for a league-low 1.3 INT percentage. Johnson was named to the Pro Bowl for the second time in his career (and only time in Tampa Bay).

While the Tampa Bay offense ranked 18th in the league, that was higher than at any time during the Dungy years. Combined with the NFL’s top-ranked defense, it was enough to win a championship.