Thanks to Tom Brady, Brad Johnson has become arguably the most underrated quarterback in the history of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. When the Buccaneers thrive, it’s almost always thanks to a dominant defense with the quarterback taking a backseat. It was the case in the late 1970s-early 1980s with Doug Williams, then again with Trent Dilfer and Shaun King in the late 1990s with Johnson taking over in the early 2000s. In a breath of fresh air, Brady at quarterback was the catalyst for the Buccaneers winning the Super Bowl in the 2020 season, but the defense dominated the playoffs, especially the Super Bowl.
In the 2002 season, the defense was the catalyst and Johnson was the quarterback. However, what if Johnson didn’t sign with the Buccaneers to replace King before the 2001 season? This is a reality we’ll be exploring.
Heading into the 2001 offseason, the Baltimore Ravens were Super Bowl champions, thanks to their defense, with the former Buccaneers signal-caller Dilfer playing quarterback. That offseason, they decided they needed to upgrade the quarterback position in their quest to defend their crown. The Ravens zeroed in on Johnson, who would eventually spurn Baltimore for Tampa with the Ravens settling with Elvis Grbac. The Ravens would tailslide and Johnson (along with Jon Gruden) would get the Buccaneers over the hump. Let’s say the Ravens do land Johnson though.
We’ve seen what Johnson can do with a dominant defense. So with Johnson at the helm instead of Grbac, the Ravens get to the AFC Championship game, instead of losing to the Pittsburgh Steelers that season, where they eventually fall to Brady, and the New England Patriots. Johnson’s play eventually declines, much like in reality, as do the Ravens who still look for their guy until signing Steve McNair. As far as the Ravens go, not much changes. As for the Bucs…
With no Johnson to replace King, the Buccaneers still need a replacement. Sure, they could have looked at other veteran free-agent quarterbacks like Jon Kitna or Jim Harbaugh that were on the market that year, but instead, they look to the draft.
Needing a quarterback, the Buccaneers do not trade up to draft tackle Kenyatta Walker, and instead stay put to draft the short-statured quarterback projected to go late in round one due to his size, a little ballplayer by the name of Drew Brees. Before any uproar, let’s clarify some things. The Buccaneers would not be getting the New Orleans Saints version of Brees, they would be getting the young then-San Diego Chargers version. With Brees at the helm, experiencing growing pains, they still make the playoffs in 2001 where they lose to the Philadelphia Eagles once more. A young Brees is an upgrade to King, but not much.
In 2002 though, with the Buccaneers defense at their apex and Brees starting to get comfortable, they make it to the NFC Championship against those same Eagles. Unfortunately, without the veteran quarterback play of Johnson to make throws and necessary plays, they don’t get the job done, and the Eagles go onto win Super Bowl XXXVII.
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Fear not though Bucs fans, because without Philip Rivers to yip at Brees’ heels, he continues to ascend and develop with Gruden. By 2005, the Buccaneers appear to be ready to make one last final run with their aging stars of yesteryear, much like in reality when they were quarterbacked by Brian Griese and Chris Simms. In this world though, with Brees into his own, and not succumbing to the torn rotator cuff he had in San Diego, they get to the NFC Championship game. The Seattle Seahawks were a juggernaut that season, so the chances of them advancing would be tough, but they get it done and win Super Bowl XL over the Pittsburgh Steelers. This time it’s the Buccaneers defensive veterans (and Mike Alstott) who go out on top and not Jerome Bettis.
From there, the Bucs would have a decision to make that offseason. Would they re-sign Brees, or would they try and draft someone who looked more like an NFL quarterback like the Ravens in 2001 (all comes full circle). The fate of Drew Brees in the 2006 offseason is a whole other rabbit hole that would have changed NFL circles, so we’ll conclude here.
So to summarize, had Johnson not signed in 2001, the Buccaneers would have had to more likely than not wait to get their first Lombardi Trophy, with the Eagles not needing to wait as long. The silver lining though, Bucs fans would have had some quality quarterback play for once to enjoy.
Honestly, these game scenarios could have gone a plethora of ways, and the Buccaneers may have drafted Walker anyway, but it is fun to see just how much of the future the flap of a butterfly’s wings can affect. Let us know which “what-if” scenario you’d like us to explore next week, as we’ll be traveling the multiverse during the offseason.