Senior writer John Oehser’s “oral history” of 25 memorable games in Jaguars history continues with this look at a 28-27 victory over the Baltimore Ravens in Week 1 of the 1997 regular season – a game in which backup quarterback Rob Johnson led the Jaguars to a dramatic victory
Date: August 31, 1997.
Site: Memorial Stadium; Baltimore, Md.
Records entering game: Jaguars 0-0, Ravens 0-0.
What happened: Call this the “Rob Johnson game.” With Jaguars quarterback Mark Brunell out with a knee injury sustained in the preseason – and with expectations high following a trip to the AFC Championship game the previous season – Johnson made the lone start of his Jaguars career in the 1997 regular-season opener and turned in a memorable performance in a 28-27 victory over the Baltimore Ravens. Johnson, a fourth-round selection from Southern California in the 1995 NFL Draft, ran for one touchdown and threw for two more – and the Jaguars rallied from a late deficit to beat their AFC Central rivals. Johnson, after rushing for a 25-yard touchdown and throwing a 20-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Jimmy Smith, sustained a high-ankle sprain late in the first half. He reinjured the ankle in the third quarter, left briefly again and was carted to the locker room for X-rays. When they proved negative, Johnson played through the injury in the fourth quarter. His 28-yard touchdown pass to Smith with 5:47 remaining in the fourth quarter provided the winning points.
Jaguars leading passer: Johnson (20-24, 294 yards, two touchdowns, zero interceptions).
Jaguars leading rusher: Natrone Means (25 carries, 67 yards, one touchdown).
Jaguars leading receivers: Smith (six receptions, 106 yards, two touchdowns), Keenan McCardell (six receptions, 84 yards).
Ravens leading passer: Vinny Testaverde (24-41, 322 yards, three touchdowns, three interceptions).
Ravens leading rusher: Earnest Byner (14 carries, 63 yards, one touchdown).
Ravens leading receiver: Michael Jackson (eight receptions, 143 yards).
The Jaguars’ 1997 regular-season opener was big for multiple reasons. It was a chance for the Jaguars to start showing the run to the AFC Championship game the previous season was no fluke. For Johnson, it was finally a chance to start after being a backup for two seasons.
Johnson: “That was crazy. We were playing in old Memorial Stadium and I just remember how excited I was for my opportunity. I hadn’t played in two years. I had played in preseason, but it was my first real start. I was super-excited and super-focused. I couldn’t wait for my opportunity.”
Smith: “We were having trouble with our quarterbacks that year. Everybody was getting hurt. Even Rob was hurt that game. He was able to hang in there for us and make some good throws.”
Though inexperienced at the NFL level, Johnson didn’t lack confidence. One reason was the talent level around him – an offense that included wide receivers McCardell and Smith, tight end Pete Mitchell, running backs Means and James Stewart and offensive tackles Tony Boselli and Leon Searcy.
Johnson: “I had played really well my second-year preseason and then I played really well when Mark got hurt [in the 1997 preseason]. So, I had a lot of confidence I was going to do OK and our team was so good. We had such a good team offensively that that helped out a ton. I had played college ball with Tony [Boselli], so I knew how good Tony was. I knew how good Leon was. We were solid there and had Natrone. We were really riding off the momentum of the year before, too. We also knew – me, Mark and [offensive coordinator] Kevin [Gilbride] – how good Jimmy Smith was. We thought he was the best in the NFL. I can’t believe he’s not in the Hall of Fame. Keenan was awesome, too. We had a good squad.”
Another reason Johnson was confident entering the ’97 opener: he simply was a confident player by nature.
Johnson: “Playing well in preseason helped. I didn’t think games would change that much. Everyone was like, ‘Oh, wait until the real season.’ I just don’t believe players tone down their speed [in the preseason]. I understand defenses might show you a little more, but I wasn’t worried about that. I was playing so well against our defense in practice that I had confidence. [Jaguars Head Coach] Tom [Coughlin] was the perfect coach for me. My dad (for whom Johnson played in high school) was a lot like him – just a complete hard-ass. I work well with that, because I have an I’ll-show-you mentality. We meshed that way really well. Practice every day was like game day. I would try to kill our defense. I just had confidence from that and I knew our team was good.”
Teammates shared Johnson’s confidence.
McCardell: “We had a lot of confidence in Rob, because Rob was one of those guys who had a lot of confidence in his arm. He wanted to throw the football. We wanted to make it easy for him, too. We didn’t have to make it easy for him, because he had arm talent, but me and Jimmy were like, ‘Let’s make this easy for him. Let’s get wide open and make it real easy.’ If you watch that game, we were wide open. It happened because of Rob, but we wanted to make it easy for him.”
The Jaguars started fast offensively against Baltimore, which wasn’t surprising. While the Ravens developed in the late 1990s into a top defense, the Jaguars won the first eight games of the series from 1996-1999 and scored at least 27 points in six of those games.
Defensive end Jeff Lageman: “For whatever reason, with our offense it was like a track meet playing the Ravens. They did things to the Ravens no one else could do. It didn’t matter if it was Rob Johnson or Mark Brunell.”
Smith: “We pretty much had Baltimore’s number like Tennessee had our number. We matched up very well against Baltimore even though they had the great defenses over the years, and they had a good quarterback at the time and a good running game. We just matched up tremendously well against Baltimore.”
Johnson’s hot start gave the Jaguars a 14-0 lead. The Ravens tied the game 14-14 early in the second quarter, and it was close after that. The Ravens took a 24-21 lead on Testaverde’s third touchdown pass of the game – a 54-yarder to wide receiver Michael Jackson – and Johnson’s ankle forced him from much of the next series. Third-team quarterback Steve Matthews drove the Jaguars to the Ravens 33, but the drive stalled.
Johnson: “It [the ankle] hurt. It completely wrecked it. I had one (a high-ankle sprain) in college and it was the only two games I missed in college. This one was on the other ankle and it feels like you break your leg, honestly. That ligament that holds those bones together gets torn and every time you step, your bones separate. You don’t understand how much a high-ankle sprain hurts. It’s ridiculous.”
Still, Johnson was determined to play. He was carted from the field for X-rays early in the third quarter, but missed just part of one series.
Johnson: “I went in and got shot up. They still weren’t going let me back in. I was trying to get back in the game and our head trainer – Mike Ryan – wasn’t going to let me back in. [Defensive end] Clyde Simmons, who is awesome, was there with me and trying to argue with Mike to let me go back in. Clyde kind of grabbed him and turned him around to talk to him and I just went in. That was probably the funniest story of that day. … I knew this was my shot. Matthews had only been there for like three days, so I didn’t want to do that to him either. I felt bad that he had to go into the game, and he didn’t know ---- I felt bad.”
McCardell: “Rob was tough. He realized, being a pro, this was his opportunity. He wasn’t going to let anything take it away – injury, or him playing bad. He had his opportunity to be successful. He went out and came back. He wasn’t going to lay down and not get his opportunity. He wanted to show people and he did.”
Johnson played the rest of the game, with the ankle injury limiting his mobility.
Johnson: “I think it helped me a little, to tell the truth. I was never a scrambler at all. I was so bored sitting and watching for two years that I got in super-good shape and I got back to my high school days when I was a really good athlete and could run. In college, I put on a bunch of weight because that was the prototype. I’m just not built for that. So, with three years of working out and not playing and watching Brunell, I could scramble a little more. I think the ankle forced me to stay in the pocket and do what I did in college, because I couldn’t move.”
The Ravens took a 27-21 lead with a 25-yard field goal by kicker Matt Stover with 8:46 remaining. Johnson immediately drove the Jaguars 80 yards, moving the offense deep into Ravens territory with passes of 23 and nine yards to McCardell and 23 yards to Mitchell.
Means: “Rob was a freaky athlete. He had huge calves. He was an athlete, but he was also a Cali kid, so you didn’t know what to expect. You see him making the throws in practice, so you know he’s there for a reason. He’s the No. 2 guy, but you don’t know until you see it in games. It was like that day everybody was like, ‘OK, Rob’s the real deal.’”
On first-and-10 from the Ravens 28 – one play after the 23-yarder to Mitchell – Johnson completed the biggest pass of his Jaguars career: a 28-yard touchdown to his left to Smith that split the safety and cornerback and allowed Smith to run the last few steps into the end zone.
Means: “Rob Johnson! He had a throw through Cover-2 that was awesome. He made some throws in that game where guys were like, ‘holy ----.’ He fit it into a window, and everyone was like, ‘----.’’
Smith: “We threw the ball 70 percent to our left, which was a credit to [left tackle] Tony Boselli that he doesn’t get credit for. A lot of the passes I caught were on the left side even though we had a left-handed quarterback. Look at some of Tony’s highlights and you’ll see the results. The results were me catching a touchdown or catching a ball over there. It was because we had a big window. It was all because of Tony Boselli and because of his ability to annihilate the whole left side of the line.”
Smith’s touchdown came on just such a play.
Smith: “They were supposed to be in a Cover-2, but the safety didn’t get over in time. Again, if it wasn’t for Boselli’s blocking there was no way that Rob would have been able to step up. He had a huge window. If he hadn’t had that huge window, he wouldn’t have been able to get that ball with that type of trajectory to me. It wasn’t an air ball. It was pretty much a line drive.”
Johnson: “I was just so dialed in to my job as far where the ball should take me. I had hit Keenan down the middle a few times in the Cover-2, so on the winning touchdown I knew I could hold the safety inside. Jimmy got a great release. He made our team in 1995 because he was a gunner on punts. You have to get great releases on that. So, if he ever got bump or jam on anything, we gave him a peek because he was so fast. We knew he could get off the line.”
The Jaguars needed more than Johnson against the Ravens. They needed big defensive plays late and got them, stopping the Ravens three times after Smith’s go-ahead touchdown. Cornerback Deon Figures intercepted Testaverde with 2:01 remaining. After the Ravens recovered a fumble by Means, the Ravens had a first down at the Jaguars 42. Testaverde was sacked once by Jaguars linebacker Eddie Robinson, then threw incomplete on fourth-and-18 from the 50 to secure victory for the Jaguars.
Defensive end Jeff Lageman: “We always had a theme with Vinny: Give him time and he’ll screw it up. We wanted to make sure we didn’t make any mistakes because we felt that if we had a solid foundation on defense that Vinny would screw it up.”
The game wasn’t just Johnson’s biggest moment with the Jaguars. It also marked his last meaningful playing time for the team. His ankle injury prevented him from playing the following week and Brunell returned a week later.
Johnson: “That sucked. I tried to go, but I couldn’t. I suited up for the next week and said if the game was close in the fourth quarter I can stand back there. But it was so bad. I had a cast on and suited up, but it hurt just standing. I couldn’t have gone. I still wasn’t right all year. It still hurts me now if I go skiing with the kids. It’s just one of those injuries that doesn’t fully heal.”
Johnson’s injury led to one of the great Jaguars stories of the 1990s: the one-start career of Matthews, who started against the New York Giants the following week and threw for 252 yards in a 40-13 Jaguars victory.
McCardell: “Tom pulled me and Jimmy to the side and said, ‘Steve only knows five pass plays. We’re going to only call five pass plays. It’s on you two to go win this game. Make it happen.’ He told us, ‘You go make it easy for him. Go win the game for him. Be wide open. It’s what you’re paid to do.’ We were like, ‘OK. We just did it the week before. We’ll do it again. Just tell us what you want. We know what we have to do.’ It was a crisis around here, but me and Jimmy never made it a crisis. Me and Smooth had a quiet confidence: ‘Let’s show them exactly how good we are.’’’
The Jaguars the following offseason traded Johnson to the Buffalo Bills for the No. 9 overall selection in the 1998 NFL Draft. The Jaguars used the selection to draft running back Fred Taylor. For Johnson, it meant a bittersweet opportunity – getting an opportunity to start but having to leave the Jaguars for that opportunity.
Johnson: “It was really tough. I know Brunell was the guy there and I probably never would have unseated him. But I really loved that team and I knew how good it was and it fit me really well because we threw the ball downfield. We had the guys to do that and we had a really good O-Line. When Tom traded me, I almost didn’t want to go because I wanted to stay with that team. I wanted to start, but I wanted it to be my team. I loved the team. Tom likes good people, I think. Every team I’ve ever been around with him gets along. I don’t know if he wants it to where everyone doesn’t like him, so they gang up (laughing). That was how it was in early in Jacksonville – that he was so hard on you would band together. But the game obviously changed my life.”