Rob Johnson stood by his locker in the Jacksonville Jaguars' dressing room at Memorial Stadium last night resembling the last survivor of the "Lost Patrol."
He leaned on a crutch for support, his left ankle encased in a heavy cast and his chin sporting several stitches. Physically, he was hurting. Spiritually, he couldn't have felt better.
He seemed to have crammed a career into several frantic hours, limping off the field twice, only to return to guide the Jaguars 80 yards for the winning touchdown with 5: 47 remaining.
All told, the former Southern California star completed 20 of 24 passes for 294 yards and two touchdowns and scrambled 25 yards for another score.
"It was an incredible, gutsy performance," said Jaguars coach Tom Coughlin, forced to call on Johnson after Brunell suffered a knee injury in the preseason.
"After he went out the second time, I thought sure he was finished. But they X-rayed him to make sure nothing was broken. He couldn't get any balance on his bad foot, but he threw with his arm and his timing was great."
If it had been up to the Jaguars' team doctor, Stephen Lucie, Johnson would have stayed sitting.
After meticulous touchdown drives of 84 and 93 yards on his first two possessions, Johnson twisted his ankle in the second quarter when he was knocked out of bounds on a scramble.
The ankle ached badly during halftime, but Johnson, who had seen the Ravens rally to close within 21-17, was not about to retire for the day.
"Rob's got this weird kind of humor," said wide receiver Keenan McCardell, who caught six passes for 84 yards. "He made out like he was the 'Nutty Professor,' hopping around the dressing room and telling everyone he could play on one leg. He really lifted our spirits."
After a few aspirins and more tape, Johnson started the second half but was knocked out again on the first series. His replacement, Steve Matthews, a recent pickup from the Kansas City Chiefs, was even more inexperienced, having spent only three days with the Jaguars in training camp.
Johnson spurned the cart, limping off the field for more repairs by trainer Michael Ryan and Lucie, who, after applying a cast, advised the young quarterback to stay on the sidelines.
"Dr. Lucie asked me if it hurt when I put pressure on my left foot," Johnson said. "I told him it did. He told me not to play, but I said I'm going back in. The team needed me. It was too much pressure to put on Matthews, who hardly knew our plays."
While Johnson debated with the medical staff, defensive end Clyde Simmons came by to lend his expert opinion. "Simmons told the doctor, 'Let the kid play if he wants to.' So I just kind of snuck back on the field," Johnson said.
Asked if he felt he had performed a courageous act, Johnson smiled and said, "I wouldn't go that far. Any quarterback in this league would have done the same thing. We needed to win this conference game, and if my ankle wasn't broken, I was just going to suck it up."
Limited to a three-step drop, Johnson hooked up with wide receiver Jimmy Smith for the winning 28-yard touchdown, as Smith easily eluded cornerback Donny Brady.
Said Smith: "It was a perfect pass. Rob showed tremendous poise playing on a bad foot. He's the reason we won today."
Johnson recalled breaking his nose in a high school basketball game and suffering an ankle injury in college that kept him out of several games his senior year.
Asked if he believed this latest injury would sideline him for the home opener against the New York Giants next week, Johnson replied sharply: "I don't think so. I really don't."
Pub Date: 9/01/97