I’ll be the first to admit that the passing stats I keep during training camp practices have limited value. The quarterbacks can’t be hit, the numbers don’t specify if defensive starters are on the field, and a high completion percentage could simply be the result of screens and check-downs.
But the stats do indicate if a quarterback is finding open receivers and making accurate throws and by that measurement, Josh Johnson is making progress. In the Bengals final two practices before leaving for Atlanta, I had Johnson completing 16-of-20 passes in 11-on-11 drills.
“I felt like I was seeing the field well and getting us in the right plays, and I was able to go out there and make those throws,” said Johnson. “Day by day I’ve gotten more comfortable within this offense. I’m learning the guys and I’m trying to take it up another level.”
“His biggest problem is that he just has to play with a little more poise,” said offensive coordinator Jay Gruden. “He’s so excited and hyper that he ‘shorts out’ sometimes. But overall, from OTAs until now I think he’s come a long way. His athletic ability is excellent and the mental side is coming along.”
Gruden and Johnson have known each other since 2008 when Josh was a rookie with Tampa Bay and Jay was an offensive assistant on his brother Jon’s coaching staff.
“Jay has climbed the ranks a long way since then,” said Johnson with a laugh. “His knowledge of the game was always there. He knew everything that his brother was doing, but his role was certainly different than it is here.”
But the offense that Gruden is running is similar to the one Johnson learned in Tampa Bay.
“We focus on different things here and have a different personnel group from what we had in Tampa,” said Johnson. “But I did understand the lingo a little bit. There are some things that are different but a lot of it is similar and that is helpful.”
Johnson started four games for the Bucs in 2009 and another in 2011, but he hasn’t thrown a pass in an NFL regular season game since. He was among the 49ers final cuts after training camp last year and wound up playing in two games for the Sacramento Mountain Lions of the seemingly defunct United Football League.
“He wants to be coached and he wants to have an opportunity,” said Gruden. “He’s never really had a legitimate chance. In Tampa he was a practice squad guy as a rookie and didn’t get many reps, and then they drafted Josh Freeman and he didn’t get any reps at all. Then he went to San Francisco and they had drafted Kaepernick so he didn’t get any reps there. This is a great chance for him to finally get the reps and the work and you can see how he is progressing because of it.”
The real test will be the preseason games. In Thursday’s opener in Atlanta, Andy Dalton is certain to exit early, leaving the bulk of the snaps to Johnson and John Skelton.
“The preseason games are critical,” said Johnson. “As a backup quarterback, that’s your regular season. That’s when you are guaranteed to play and you have to go out there and show that you are progressing as a player – especially in this league or you won’t last long.”
“(A preseason game) doesn’t mean anything in the win/loss column, but it means a lot to the guys trying to make the team and it means a lot to us because we’re trying to find those guys,” said Gruden. “We need to see how guys perform in a live setting because a lot of people can do well out here (in practice) and then fizzle in the games, and other guys look OK out here and then shine in the games.”
In the first depth chart released last week, Johnson was listed ahead of Skelton in the battle to be Dalton’s backup, but Josh says that he isn’t reading much into that.
“We haven’t even played a game yet,” Johnson told me. “I need to keep the arrow going up. I’ve been in this business going on six years and a lot happens. I understand the situation that I’m in so I just try to take it day-by-day and keep making progress.”
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