JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The fourth-quarter pass had little hope for success when it left his hand. But Washington Redskins quarterback Josh Johnson, in a starting role for the first time in seven years, took a chance anyway. What could he possibly lose?
The pass was tipped and caught by Jamison Crowder for a 33-yard gain. On the next play, Johnson knifed through two defenders on a scramble, ignoring the usual quarterback wisdom to slide and gaining eight more yards. Two weeks ago he was playing in a charity basketball game. His football future involved a start-up league in the spring. He has nothing to fear.
And, finally, after Redskins kicker Dustin Hopkins drilled a 36-yard field goal to beat the Jacksonville Jaguars 16-13, Johnson hit the grass and slammed his hands onto the turf after winning his first career start in six tries. Emotions 1, Johnson 0.
The Redskins (7-7) remain alive in the NFC East race in part because Johnson embraced his unexpected opportunity. Johnson, the Redskins’ fourth starting quarterback this season, has embraced his new football life. Sunday, it embraced him back.
It won’t be easy, not with 18 players on injured reserve heading into games at Tennessee and the regular-season finale at home against Philadelphia, both of whom have playoff aspirations of their own.
Nothing has come easily for Johnson. At age 32, his career could have been over. Instead, Sunday evening he was addressing the media after his first NFL win and talking about trying to lead a team to the playoffs.
“I’ve always had belief in myself that I can do things like this, but, I’ve never been one to talk about it because talking does nothing,” Johnson said. “I mean, you’ve got to really be about the action, and [Sunday], I was in the action. And just to have it go our way and be able to just have everything that has been building up in me for years and finally let it out, it was a relief. Honestly, it was. It was just a relief.”
The Redskins signed Johnson the day after Colt McCoy broke his leg in a Dec. 3 loss at Philadelphia. Johnson relieved a struggling Mark Sanchez a week later. Sunday, Johnson’s passing numbers were modest: 16-of-25 for 151 yards and a touchdown. He added 49 yards on nine runs, most coming off a scramble.
His 33-yard circus-tip completion to Crowder -- the ball, thrown under duress, was behind him, but Crowder reached back in stride, tipped it and turned around to grab it as he hit the ground -- was a big play midway through the fourth quarter. It led to his game-tying touchdown pass to Jeremy Sprinkle four plays later. In the final quarter, Johnson completed 6-of-7 passes for 71 yards.
On a third-quarter field-goal drive, Johnson scrambled three times for 22 yards and delivered an 11-yard bullet to Michael Floyd on third-and-10 to the Jaguars’ 16-yard line. That helped overcome 2-for-8 passing on the drive.
He split defenders on scrambles, leading to extra yards. He opted to dive rather than slide to avoid contact. It’s a tough way to exist in the NFL for a slim quarterback; it’s indicative of a mindset to maximize every play.
“You can tell he’s been down this road before and he’s appreciative of the opportunity,” Redskins running back Adrian Peterson said. “Shoot, he was sitting on the couch when he got the call. If you can’t be a leader when that opportunity presents itself, I don’t know what to tell you.”
Johnson knows the alternatives.
“I know every opportunity could be my last one,” he said. “That’s just the reality of my situation. I just want to leave it all out on the field. I owe this game that much because I love it that much. I mean, I’ve put this work in, I’ve stayed around this game for this long -- for me to go out there and not leave it all out on the field, I would be disrespecting it. If I have an opportunity where I know I can make a play, I’m going to go do that.”
He wasn’t perfect; he was good enough. Consider what he did: He won an NFL game after not starting for seven years, after sitting at home for 13 weeks of the season and with an offense hit hard by injuries -- and without many playmakers. Yes, Jacksonville has lost 9 of 10 games, but its defense entered as a top-10 unit and shut out the Indianapolis Colts two weeks ago.
“He played good. He played really good, actually. He missed a couple of things, which is to be expected,” Redskins coach Jay Gruden said. “In the second half he stuck with the plan and made some plays outside the pocket with his legs, which was outstanding. What can you say? We just came to Jacksonville and beat the Jaguars and he was a big part of that.”
Johnson did not take any mementos away from this game. Instead, when asked about it, he tapped his head and said it’s all in there. That’s where it matters most. It’s obvious to anyone who saw him after the game what it meant. One takeaway for Johnson: a banged-up body and sore knee, which is why he walked with a limp into his postgame presser, dressed in all black.
“Man, for him I know it’s huge,” Redskins running back Chris Thompson said. “I can tell he’s so happy about getting that opportunity. He loves the game and he’s smiling all the time. That’s something everyone gets to feed off of. It’s great to see.”