The Rob Johnson Dilemma
With a half of season to evaluate, is Johnson the answer?
by Tony Bogyo
Bills Daily Correspondent
Nov. 13, 2001
The great Doug Flutie - Rob Johnson debate, an issue that divided players and fans alike, was settled months ago. After what we were told was an extensive evaluation of both quarterbacks, Bills management declared Rob Johnson to be the quarterback of the future for the organization and Doug Flutie was given his release. Flutie promptly joined John Butler in San Diego as the starting quarterback for the 1-15 Chargers. Finally, the season-long nightmare was over - both men would be NFL starters and neither would be looking over his shoulder in fear that the other would be taking his place in the huddle.
As with any difficult decision, many fans felt the decision was wrong. How could the Bills turn their back on a guy who went 21-9 as the starter, kept fans in the seats during a critical moment in franchise history and was just plain fun to watch? The decision to keep Johnson, we are told, was simple - he was a better fit for the new offensive scheme to be installed (strangely - no mention of Johnson’s age, arm strength or the 1st round pick given for him was even mentioned).
On the surface, the decision seemed to have its logic. Surely Johnson had the physical skills and attributes to be successful. The new west coast offense would allow Johnson to take shorter drops and get rid of the ball faster, presumably reducing the sacks and injuries he had suffered under the old regime. Eric Moulds was locked into a new contract and would provide a pro-bowl caliber target down the field. Peerless Price might actually become the number 2 receiver the Bills had hoped for, and Jay Riemersma provided one of the better tight end targets in the NFL. Johnson and Moulds had intended to practice together in the off season. Surely this would be one of the better quarterback-wide receiver combinations in the NFL in 2001. The coaches were new - they must be better than the planners who lead the Bills to an 8-8 season in 2000.
Fast forward to the present. Halfway through the 2001 season, the Bills are a dismal 1-7. Gone are the days of waiting to see who would be coming to Orchard Park for the playoffs. These happy times have been replaced by a countdown to the NFL draft and a deep fascination with Mel Kiper (and not just his hair). Somewhere, the wheels came off the train - the Bills are a tangled and smoldering wreck.
There are many theories to explain the current state of the Bills. This is a young team - the least average experienced team in all of football. Many vets were purged in cap-cutting moves prior to the start of the season. The youngsters are still learning. Not only are the young players learning, but they are learning from coaches with little NFL experience - the coaching staff was almost completely replaced after Wade Phillips was fired. The offensive and defensive schemes are new. The 3-4 defense that was so successful in years past was replaced by a 4-3 scheme that was to frequently play an aggressive 46 type of attack. The west coast offense and all its complexity was installed. In the end, it appears that learning complex new schemes may have been too tall an order for such a young team to master in a single year.
New players, new coaches, new schemes. Add to that a number of injuries to key personnel (Sam Cowart, Jerry Ostroski,) and you have a recipe for trouble. Throw in some good old fashion neglect of the offensive line (when was the last time the front office addressed this glaring need?) and you have an accident waiting to happen. Top it all off with a quarterback who has made questionable progress and is now hurt, and you have a full-blown disaster.
Yes, the prophecy of many has come true - Rob Johnson is hurt yet again. For all the promise he may have had, Rob Johnson has fallen into the “I told you so” category. “I told you he couldn’t win”. “I told you he gets sacked too often”. “I told you he’d get hurt”. “I told you he is not the answer at quarterback”.
To be fair, Rob Johnson is at best only a contributing factor to the present mess. Yes, Rob hasn’t won - but how many of the losses lay mainly with his poor play and not a conglomeration of other team mistakes? Yes, he gets sacked too often - but how does anyone avoid a sack when the defense gets to you almost as quickly as the snap? Yes, Rob gets hurt - anyone who saw so many bull-rushing defensive linemen would probably have their fair share of health problems as well. But the big question remains - is Rob Johnson the answer at quarterback?
If Rob Johnson fails to get back onto the field this season, his evaluation will be incomplete. Johnson has had 2 solid outings (a win against Jacksonville and a near-win at San Diego) and more than a few questionable games. Will the Bills continue to tout Johnson as the “quarterback of the future”, or will they decide that the 4 year experiment is over and look for another man to lead the team? The answer may hinge more on the available options than the play of Rob Johnson.
Rob Johnson’s salary cap figure for the 2002 season is a whopping $11.2 million. It is clear that this needs to be reduced; it is not clear how to accomplish this. The Bills can either extend Johnson’s current deal into the future to shift some of the hit to future years, or they can part ways with him. Johnson’s cap number will be in the neighborhood of $5 million should he be cut. There will be no cap hit against the Bills should they make him available to the Houston Texans in the expansion draft and they decide to pick him up as their quarterback.
Leaving Johnson unprotected in the expansion draft is a risky strategy. If Houston fails to take Johnson the Bills will have given him a loud vote of no confidence. Given Johnson’s already weak confidence in the support he gets from management, he could be completely destroyed playing for a Bills team that took such a gamble and lost
Without Johnson at the helm next season, the Bills have very few options. The 2002 free agent quarterback market is very thin. The only current starter slated to be an unrestricted free agent next season is Miami’s Jay Fiedler. Jim Miller and Shane Matthews of the Bears will also be available, but the Bears will likely re-sign one of them. Current veteran backup quarterbacks who will be unrestricted free agents are Scott Mitchell, Gus Frerotte and Jonathan Quinn - hardly a plethora of talent. Restricted free agent quarterbacks are so unimpressive that they won’t even be listed here. New England should make Tom Brady or Drew Bledsoe available for a trade, but the price will be steep - possibly too steep for a team already allocating $5 million to a quarterback no longer on the roster. Additionally, Trent Dilfer, Jeff Blake and Shaun King may be available - all veterans currently in backup roles and not much to be excited about. Would any of these men be a stark improvement over Rob Johnson?
The 2002 rookie draft class is also very thin with quarterback talent. Only David Carr of Fresno State appears to be a consensus 1st round pick, but he projects to fall to the last third of the round. Given the recent hit-or-miss history of rookie quarterbacks (Ryan Leaf, Akili Smith), putting pressure on a rookie to lead a winning team is a tremendous risk with possibly disastrous consequences.
It seems clear that if Johnson is no longer a Bill in 2002 nobody from the above list of quarterback talent would step in at quarterback and lead the team to greatness. The Bills will need an above-average quarterback next season if they hope to make a solid step towards the playoffs. The team is not strong enough in other areas (defense) to capitalize on the Trent Dilfer theorem that a team with a mediocre quarterback can still win it all.
To understand the coming decision, one will need to look at past history. The Bills already gave up a 1st round pick for Johnson and did their best to sell him to fans that wanted Flutie at the helm. They made a decision that many questioned, but stuck to their guns and took a cap hit and a public relations hit for the well-paid Flutie. It would take clear and convincing evidence that Johnson was unfit for the job for the Bills to state that their comprehensive analysis lead them to choose the wrong quarterback. The Bills will likely give Johnson, and their decision to keep him, another chance.
The safest course of action seems to be to extend Johnson’s contract and explain away the misgiving the Bills might have about his performance. The complexity of the west coast offense, the inexperience of players and coaches, the injuries, the poor supporting cast of offensive linemen and the season half lost to injury would seem to be good arguments for a Bills brain-trust wishing to once again sell their quarterback to a restless fan-base. This would also push any real decision about Johnson off to the future and give him at least another year to prove he is either a solid NFL quarterback or a guy who never was.
The Bills also win by avoiding a salary cap hit on a player no longer with the team (the dreaded “dead” salary cap dollars). They can play up the fact that Johnson will now have a lower cap figure than he had in the past and this has helped free up money to sign other players. Lastly, it will eliminate the need to sell a mediocre veteran or inexperienced rookie to a public not used to lengthy absences from the playoffs. Why would the team want to embark on another “he’s not Flutie but it’s O.K.” campaign unless they had to, particularly if there is no guarantee that they new quarterback was any better than Johnson?
Simply put, it is just too risky to replace Rob Johnson at this point - the downside for Bills management is considerable. The upside to keeping Johnson may not be tremendous, but it may still work out for the Bills. Given the factors, the smart money says you’ll see Rob Johnson at the helm in 2002.
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