You see mediocrity. He sees hunger.
You see questions. He sees speed.
You see problems. He sees playmakers.
Oh, to see the world through the eyes of George Johnson, defensive end. He looks at the defensive line of the Tampa Bay Bucs, and he sees a rampaging bunch of answers. The rest of us? We see Gerald McCoy and a bunch of guys with question marks instead of jersey numbers. We see quarterbacks with time to throw. We see opposing offensive lines with extra blockers. We see vapor.
For a long time, since the days of Simeon Rice, it has been that way. Granted, if the Bucs have had one problem position, it has been quarterback. But right behind it has been a pass-rushing defensive end. In the beginning, there was Lee Roy Selmon. Later, there was Rice. Also there was…nobody.
Booker Reese? Ron Holmes? Keith McCants? Eric Curry? Regan Upshaw? Gaines Adams? Da’Quan Bowers? Styles White? Michael Johnson? There has been a spinning door of pretend players for the Bucs, a collection of players who lacked the skill or the substance to make a difference in one of pro football’s most important positions.
As a result, the Bucs haven’t rushed very well, and opposing quarterbacks have picked them apart, and the record has been awful.
Now, as the Bucs have started work in their OTA’s, there is a new group of suspects. Johnson and Jacquies Smith were the starting defensive ends during Thursday’s workout.
Yes, Johnson said, this year will be different.
“We think we can be the best defensive line in the league,” Johnson said. “We’re the best until someone proves they’re better.”
Last year, the Bucs badly missed on another Johnson, defensive end Michael, who was barely noticeable when Tampa Bay was on defense. He was a window-shopper in a mall, milling about but never making a difference. In the off-season, the Bucs ran from his contract and instead invested in George Johnson, who had six sacks for the Lions.
“I need to be a double-digit sack guy,” Johnson said. “That’s what they brought me in here for, and that’s what I want to do.”
In a 4-3, it is imperative that a team pressures the opposing quarterback. Johnson knows it. Head coach Bucs’ coach Lovie Smith preaches it.
“If you talk to a defensive end and he says ‘You know, I’m not going to be a double-digit sack guy,’ he can’t play for us,” said Smith. “To get on the map you need to be a double-digit sack guy period, so we hope he’s right.”
The thing is, the Bucs are in decent shape at defensive tackle, where they have Pro Bowler McCoy, former Pro Bowler Henry Melton and Clinton McDonald. But they drastically need more heat from their ends.
Johnson is aware. “There hasn’t been much production since the Super Bowl team,” he said.
If you remember Johnson from his first trip here, you probably aren’t hopeful. Johnson doesn’t blame you.
“I just ran around,” he said. “I didn’t know what I was doing.”
Now, the light has been switched on.
“You never arrive until you’re in the Hall of Fame,” he said. “You can always improve. But I took a big step.”
Said Smith: “We’ve seen enough to know he’s going to be one of our guys. He’s a good pass rusher, a good run-support player, a guy who plays with a motor. He’s bright, and he shows up every day and works.”
It is only late May. There is a long time until he rushes the passer with a purpose.
But if Johnson can deliver, it will give the Bucs a better chance.
“That’s why I’m here,” he said.