Updated: 7 p.m.
Josh Johnson, the new Bengals backup quarterback candidate, has a rep for being a student of the game. In fact, he says he likes to play "from the neck up."
"I like to play within the offense and then when need be, make plays," Johnson said Monday. "On our team we have one of the best receivers in the game and one of the better young tight ends. Both of those guys are Pro Bowlers. You let those guys make plays.
"With my ability, that's how I like to see it. I like to get those guys the ball and let them do what they do. When the defense is worried about them, I can add more to the equation with the abilities that I have. That's what I try to do with my game. I just try to execute the offense and then create havoc with my ability when the opportunity presents itself."
Johnson hasn't had much of an opportunity in his last three seasons, when he's thrown 36 passes and none last year. He spent the 2012 regular season looking for work until Cleveland called the last week.
Tampa Bay took him in the fifth round out of the University of San Diego in 2008, when he didn't take a snap, and then went 0-4 as a starter in his first season in 2009 behind rookie Josh Freeman for new head coach Raheem Morris. His career numbers: five TDs, 10 interceptions and a 54.2 completion percentage that he's looking to improve with work.
"From my perspective what keeps me going is I haven’t produced with the opportunities yet. From a coaches perspective I haven’t had a lot of opportunities in the developmental process as far as getting a rapport with guys," Johnson said. "I’ve been in different situations with guys who are the franchise quarterbacks and they take precedence.
"But I feel like now is the opportunity where you get in the right situation and the team believes in you and that’s what a lot of quarterbacks need. They need to believe in your talent and want to develop you. Hopefully that is the situation here, they believe in what I can do and take my strengths and make them greater and take my weaknesses and make them strengths. That’s all you can ask for as a quarterback.”
Johnson is a descendant of two of the more highly-regarded houses of offense in the NFL. A Bay Area product, Johnson was recruited to then Division I-AA, non-scholarship San Diego by current 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh. He was drafted by the Bucs in the last year of head coach Jon Gruden's regime, where current Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden was an offensive assistant.
“They’re always trying to attack and be on that from the offense’s perspective," Johnson said of the two offenses. "The systems are favored for the quarterbacks to be successful so you can go out and execute and put the team in the best position to win."
“Great coach, great football mind. Gets a lot out of his players," Johnson said of Harbaugh after he signed Johnson in San Francisco last year and cut him before the season. "You guys see it now, everywhere he’s gone. He’s a credit to my success and taught me a lot about the position. I have a lot of love for him.”
Johnson also has an affinity for the Grudens and has been eagerly awaiting a reunion.
"That’s good for me when I walk in the first day, to have some familiarity there and hit the ground running. The verbiage was pretty similar," he said of the offense in Tampa Bay and what the Bengals are running. "Protections sound the same when I was able to take my visit (two weeks ago). We didn’t get deep down into the playbook but what we did cover it seemed pretty similar.
"Obviously it is a different team from the one we had in Tampa, so there will be different areas we will focus on. It's good to have some familiarity with the basics. There will be a lot more for me to learn. Once I get the full playbook, I’m just going to hit it hard like I never learned it anyway; that’s the best way to do it.”
The only Bengal he knows is fullback
Johnson hasn't seen much of Dalton, but he knows he's been to the playoffs both seasons he's been a starter.
"From afar he’s had a lot of success. He started as a rookie on a short year and had a great year then," Johnson said. "From the games I saw he tries to keep balanced. It’s hard for me to judge when you don’t know what they are being taught, but seeing in front of them, all you can do is battle and produce and he’s done both of those.”
The 6-2, 213-pound Johnson has caught Jay Gruden's eye for a variety of reasons. Gruden raves about his big, live arm, and his speed running the ball. He also likes the speed with which he picks up things, and Johnson would prefer to talk about that rather than his athleticism.
"I play above the neck, then my athletic ability is my natural ability and I use it to improvise,” Johnson said. "Honestly, being a backup, that's what you have to be (a student of the game). I feel like that's what has allowed me to be a backup without a lot of opportunity, my ability to be able to grasp what's going on and being able to get in there when called upon and get the offense going, and get in and out of the huddle. Has that allowed me to perform at my best ability? No. It's a part of growing. But I feel like I wouldn't have been in these different type of situations that I've been in in the NFL if I wasn't able to grasp what's going on in the limited opportunities I have been given."
Jay Gruden has also raised the possibility of Johnson running the read option here, like he did in Tampa Bay when Morris's staff put in a package for him and Freeman.
"It hadn't taken the league by storm as it did last year, but I feel like it's an added advantage. It's something the defense has to worry about," Johnson said. "If that's what they want me to do, I've done it before and I'll come in and do it again. I know the conflict it creates on defenses and it does nothing but create more advantages for the offense.
"I had a package of runs because I really just came in to do that. We complemented with passes when teams just thought I was going to run the ball. Josh (Freeman) had different types of runs, obviously because there were two different quarterbacks. We implemented a little of it in the offense, though. We weren't able to stick together for another year for it to grow as it has grown now, but we ran it a lot in Tampa."
Johnson, 26, is currently back in San Diego finishing off a business administration degree this semester. But with offseason workouts beginning in mid-April, he figures he'll be commuting as well as working with his teachers to negotiate those final two weeks of school. He knows Gruden's classroom has become the focal point.
"I'll be around. I have a job first. You have to take care of the job," he said.
He hopes the job is the backup job.