REDSKINS PARK —The surprise has worn off now and the work has begun in earnest for Josh Johnson, who will start his first NFL game in seven years when the Redskins play the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday.
That is not something he or the Redskins would have thought possible during the summer. Alex Smith was going to be the new starting quarterback and Colt McCoy was set to be his backup. Then Smith and McCoy sustained broken legs in a nine-day span last month and the unthinkable happened.
Behind an offensive line decimated by injuries once again, Johnson at least moved the ball when called upon down 40-0 against the New York Giants on Sunday at FedEx Field. Redskins coach Jay Gruden immediately made the decision to give Johnson the start against Jacksonville. A career backup now on his 12th NFL organization will start for a team whose season has cratered during a four-game losing streak.
Johnson says he’s ready and that his journey around the NFL is part of the reason why. The Redskins had an extended practice on Wednesday with scripted sessions and walk throughs at the beginning and end to get him comfortable with the offense. He’s familiar with Gruden thanks to their time together in Tampa Bay and Cincinnati, when Gruden was the offensive coordinator. But it’s a lot to cram into one week and the playbook will naturally be limited.
"It has helped because I’ve been around a lot of different quarterbacks, a couple Super Bowl quarterbacks, a Hall of Fame quarterback, first-round picks, fifth-round picks,” Johnson said. “I’ve experienced coaching from numerous coaches and you pick up on some common traits. You pick up on different things where you can apply it when necessary whether it is preparation, performance, mental stability. Everything becomes a full circle, so it’s getting me ready for Sunday."
But prior to Sunday’s loss to the Giants, Johnson last threw a pass in a game on Dec. 11, 2011. Ironically, that came for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers against the Jaguars in a 41-14 loss. Johnson’s last start was the week before that in a 38-19 loss to the Carolina Panthers.
Cam Newton was a rookie. So was Redskins linebacker Mason Foster, who was Johnson’s teammate that day, too, as a starting rookie linebacker for the Buccaneers. Johnson appeared in two more games with Tampa Bay and then began his journey around the NFL.
His stops included Cleveland, Cincinnati and San Francisco twice each, Indianapolis, Buffalo, Baltimore, New York with both the Jets and the Giants, Houston, his hometown Oakland Raiders this past offseason and now the Redskins.
“The one thing that I really respect about Josh Johnson is he is a very confident guy,” Gruden said. “He believes in his ability to be a quarterback in the National Football League despite being on  teams. He has a skill set that’s pretty good but hasn’t been able to stick anywhere, but still, the game's not too big for him.”
Indeed, Johnson came on with 5:31 left in the third quarter and his team down 40-0 against New York and completed 11 of 16 passes and had seven carries for 45 yards with a passing touchdown and a rushing touchdown plus two two-point conversions. He didn’t look nervous.
With Washington’s situation at both left and right guard so disastrous because of injury, there isn’t much Gruden can do to change the playbook. Johnson’s mobility allows the Redskins to use him a little differently than Mark Sanchez, who originally took over for McCoy but struggled against New York and was benched.
Johnson is still grasping the new terminology, though. He was with Gruden in Cincinnati in 2013, a backup on a team that made the playoffs, but much of that wording was changed when Gruden arrived in Washington in 2014. But Jon Gruden – Jay’s brother and the Raiders’ head coach – once told Johnson to keep a manual on what coaches across the NFL are doing when he was between jobs so he’d be prepared if a call came. It did, but this time from a familiar face. They all hope it helps.
“To come back and kind of experience a similar culture and being in something that I've been comfortable with before, it's kind of a blessing for me,” Johnson said. “Because I don’t really have to go through the rigors of a coach trying to figure me out. It's more of just figuring me in.”
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