Competition opens for Bengals backup QB job
Josh Johnson replaced his tiger-striped helmet with a Bengals stocking cap after practice on a sunny, 82-degree afternoon. The fifth-year quarterback was the only player looking for a little extra warmth.
No, he's not from around here. Nor are the two others trying out for the same job.
The competition for Cincinnati's backup quarterback job has started with the team's first offseason organized workouts. The Bengals are looking for someone to replace Bruce Gradkowski, who was Andy Dalton's backup the last two seasons before leaving for Pittsburgh.
Rather than get one guy to take the job, the Bengals signed Johnson - a former Tampa Bay starter - and claimed John Skelton off waivers from Arizona to compete with inexperienced Zac Robinson.
The Bengals want to see which one develops a knack for making the most out of very limiting chances during OTA workouts, minicamp and training camp.
''We're going to have to see the efficiency of it and the ability to handle the football team,'' coach Marvin Lewis said after the workout on Tuesday. ''To play unnerved and to play where we have confidence.''
So far, the Bengals haven't needed their backup quarterback much. Dalton has started all 34 games during his two seasons, including a pair of first-round playoff losses to Houston.
Gradkowski was needed only once. Dalton hurt his throwing wrist during the first half of the season opener in Cleveland during his rookie season. Gradkowski played the second half and threw a 41-yard touchdown pass to A.J. Green, who was uncovered because the Browns were slow leaving their defensive huddle.
Otherwise, Gradkowski's biggest contribution was helping Dalton adjust to the NFL and Cincinnati's new West Coast offense.
''He'd been in the league for a while and he understood the game,'' Dalton said on Tuesday. ''To come to the sideline and talk to him about things of what he saw and talk through some of those things, it was good to have Bruce here. I think he definitely helped me out.''
There's no clear-cut favorite to become his successor.
Johnson has a connection to the coaching staff. He was Tampa Bay's fifth-round pick in 2008 and played in 26 games, starting five of them, from 2008-11. He became familiar with Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden in Florida.
Johnson was released by San Francisco before last season. With no NFL team interested, he signed with Sacramento of the United Football League. The injury-depleted Browns needed a quarterback for their final game of the season and signed Johnson, who then became a free agent again.
Cincinnati represents a chance to get his NFL career back on firm footing.
''I would rather be doing nothing else,'' Johnson said. ''I was out of the game - well, not the game completely. I was in the UFL, but that was only for four games. But just to be back on the grass (fields), once you have it taken away from you, you really understand how much you appreciate it. So I'm just excited to be back out here.''
Gruden was an assistant coach at Tampa Bay during Johnson's rookie season, so there's some familiarity with the way he likes things done.
''I spent a good year with Jay,'' Johnson said. ''He would interact with the quarterbacks a lot, even though he wasn't our quarterbacks coach. And then with (former Oakland and Tampa Bay coach) Jon (Gruden) being his brother, I learned a lot from him as well.
''To walk into this situation, it's good to have that comfortability.''
Skelton is looking for a return to stability after a very strange year in Arizona. The Cardinals signed Kevin Kolb before deciding to hold a competition for the job last season. Kolb was injured during the Hall of Fame game in Canton, Ohio, and Skelton won the starting job. But he suffered an ankle injury during the closing minute of the season opener, and Kolb became the starter.
The Cardinals lost nine in a row and used three different starters - rookie Ryan Lindley received a chance, too - during the slump.
''It was just a roller coaster the whole season,'' Skelton said. ''We never got any stability. And you have those seasons sometimes in the NFL, and a lot of it is how you come back and how you respond from a season like that.''
Unlike Johnson, Skelton has little familiarity with Cincinnati's offense.
''It's a completely new offense for me, the first time I've been in any West Coast system,'' he said. ''The terminology (is) a little different, but the freedom that the quarterback gets to play with is enormous in this offense. Once you learn everything and learn the ins-and-outs of the offense, it's very user-friendly for a quarterback and for the offense as a whole.''
Robinson was New England's seventh-round pick in 2010. He has been with Seattle, Detroit and Cincinnati, but has yet to appear in a game.
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