No one with a rooting interest in Saturday’s game may have a more conflicted rooting interest than Boller.
He’s a big Josh Johnson fan — so much so that, as general manager of the San Diego Fleet in the new eight-team Alliance of American Football League, he made Johnson their top quarterback pick in the league draft.
Still, Boller wants Johnson to play well, because, deep down, Boller, the former director of player personnel at Syracuse who also worked as a scout for the St. Louis Rams and front office executive with the Detroit Lions, is a football guy.
And he’s a Josh Johnson guy.
That’s why he drafted him.
“Come on, Josh is a great guy,” said Boller, who is working to finalize plans for the Fleet in the new league, which is scheduled to begin play on Feb. 9 with San Diego facing the San Antonio Commanders, one of two AAF games that will be broadcast live on CBS that first weekend. “He texts me every week, and I wish him good luck.”
This wasn’t the plan, though, for the Fleet when they selected Johnson. He is their star, a quarterback with NFL experience and name recognition locally after a tremendous collegiate career at San Diego from 2004 to 2007. With the Fleet, he’ll be playing for quarterback guru Mike Martz, the former Rams head coach who will lead the team in its first season.
“Josh was excited to play for Mike and his offense, knowing what Mike has done with quarterbacks in his career,” Boller said. “We told him, ‘If you want to be able to throw the ball the way you’ve always wanted to, you’ve come to the right place.’”
But then Redskins quarterback Alex Smith broke his leg on Nov. 18 against the Houston Texans, and backup Colt McCoy became the starter. Washington needed another backup, and called in a number of candidates for workouts — including Johnson, who had been drafted in the fifth round by Redskins president Bruce Allen when Allen was in his final year in Tampa in 2008 as general manager.
That was when Johnson first worked with Redskins coach Jay Gruden, who was on the Bucs staff (he was also with Gruden in 2013 when Gruden was the Bengals offensive coordinator). The Redskins chose Mark Sanchez as their backup, and Johnson was back out on the street.
“I was nervous and then kind of relieved when they signed (Sanchez),” Boller said.
When McCoy suffered a cracked bone in his leg two weeks later against Philadelphia, and Sanchez became the starter, Washington called Johnson back.
This time he secured the backup role — even though he was preparing to play for San Diego in a few months. After three quarters of watching Sanchez struggle in his start against the Giants on Dec. 9, Gruden called on Johnson, who started last Sunday and led Washington to a 16-13 win over Jacksonville, completing 16 of 25 passes for 151 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions for his first NFL win in six starts since he came into the league in 2009.
“He is a football player,” Boller said. “Why wouldn’t he want to play?”
Boller said they believe the NFL hasn’t seen the best of Johnson, 32, who after three seasons in Tampa, bounced around from Cleveland to Cincinnati to San Francisco, among others, always relegated to the sideline.
“Josh felt like he had something to prove, that he could still play in the NFL,” Boller said. “When we watched his tape, we knew he still had the skillset to play as well. Josh’s combine workout seven years ago was one of the best of any quarterbacks ever, from throwing to running to jumping, everything. He hit it out of the park.
“You just have to scratch your head,” Boller said. “Even in his last preseason game for Baltimore, he was playing with third stringers in the second half and I think he led them on two or three drives.” Johnson played well for the Ravens in four preseason games in 2016, completing 41 of 57 passes for 365 yards, one touchdown and rushing 18 times for 87 yards and two touchdowns. He was cut, though, and picked up by the New York Giants, where he was the third-string quarterback and active for only two games that season.
This week, Gruden talked about how quickly Johnson has progressed since arriving in Washington. “From one week to the next just huge progress,” Gruden said. “I mean it’s been two weeks, so he’s been great. Just his comfort level, leadership, I think guys tend to look a lot better with the more reps that they get. If you’re a backup at quarterback and you’re just throwing pat and go, maybe getting some carded work, it’s hard to see your development. But, when you’re getting all the work with the ones, you can see a guy and talk to him about each individual throw, the footwork, the reads, the protections and I can see he’s getting more comfortable. It’s a difficult deal, but at least he’s a guy with some brains and some confidence and can play.”
“I am still hoping he comes back and plays in our league, and shows the whole country, not just Washington Redskins fans, what he can do,” Boller said. “He has said all along he still wants to play in our league. That’s up to him. I’m sure his contract there is just to the end of the year. Would they (Washington) try to re-sign him? If he doesn’t come back, I wish him well, but I think he is going to come back and play for San Diego.
“But I don’t know what will happen,” Boller said. “We’ll be watching this week.”
And rooting for Josh Johnson. But it will be very confusing.
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