The entire practice week leading up to the Redskins’ matchup with the Giants on Sunday was focused on quarterback Mark Sanchez – getting him first-team reps, installing the game plan for him, spending as much time as possible learning his cadence, his rhythm and his reads.
After about two quarters at FedExField, all of that preparation went out the door.
Unable to find much success under center, Sanchez, making his first start since 2015, was replaced at quarterback early in the third quarter by Josh Johnson, who just the week prior was playing in a charity basketball tournament in Oakland, Calif., and signed with the Redskins on Wednesday.
Playing in his first game since 2013, when he was a member of the Bengals, Johnson provided some much needed life on offense, using his legs to sustain drives and then hitting his receivers and running backs with considerable success. He finished his unexpected opportunity passing 11-of-16 for 195 yards, a touchdown and an interception, along with rushing for 45 yards and a touchdown in the team’s 40-16 loss at FedExField.
“It felt good man, it felt good to really just experience some success with these guys, for myself,” Johnson said. “I mean I haven’t played in a long time. I’ve always been itching to get out there in a real game, I had the opportunity and I just wanted to take advantage of it.”
The outing impressed head coach Jay Gruden, who said at the podium following the game that Johnson would start the Redskins’ next game in Jacksonville, which would make him the fourth quarterback in six games to start for Washington.
“We’ll get Josh ready to go,” Gruden said. “I think the element he brings a litt bit knowing the system. He came in here and he was playing a pickup basketball game and came in here and is playing in the National Football League on a Sunday. My hat’s off to him for picking it up.”
At halftime, with the Redskins trailing 34-0, Gruden told Johnson to be ready. Sanchez hadn’t been able to find any rhythm during the previous two quarters, ultimately throwing for just 38 yards and two interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown. After the first offensive series of the second half sputtered with two sacks, Johnson entered the game and started to make things happen.
After turning the ball over on downs, Johnson took advantage on his second turn. Linebacker Mason Foster’s interception in Giants territory set the offense up with a short field and Johnson would quickly rush eight yards into the end zone following a roughing the passer penalty.
“I’ve been doing this long enough so at the end of the day just go out there and trust your reads, trust your coaching and let’s see what happens,” he said.
With his next opportunity, Johnson ran for 13 yards and then made some personal history. On the second play of the drive, he hit Jamison Crowder on a shallow crossing route and the wide receiver did the rest, springing down the sideline for a 79-yard touchdown, the longest in his and Johnson’s career. Johnson converted both two-point attempts, and nearly scored a third touchdown later, but his pass to Josh Doctson sailed wide and into the hands of a Giants defender.
Despite ending on a sour note – despite the score and total performance – Johnson offered some playmaking ability in a situation in which it was nearly impossible to succeed. With a couple of days to learn the game plan, Johnson even admitted he played "Madden" just to memorize his teammates’ names.
“I learned their names first and foremost, but I’ve played in this division and so I knew about Jamison, knew about Jordan [Reed], I’ve played with Vernon [Davis] in San Fran so we’ve got some familiarity,” Johnson said. “Obviously AP’s [Adrian Peterson] name speaks for itself. There was some familiarity with guys from afar but never actually really played with them.”
Check out photos of the Washington Redskins during their regular season Week 14 game against the New York Giants at FedExField.
Johnson, sore from playing four basketball games, who flew cross-country to Redskins Park on a redeye Tuesday night, had already signed on to play in the Alliance of American Football this winter. Those plans changed when Senior Vice President of Personnel Doug Williams called and offered him a spot on the roster.
“You never really know in this league, you have to take what comes,” Johnson said. “But at the end of the day, I always tell myself if there’s something I love, something I want to do, I just have to make sure I’m ready, so that if the opportunity does come I can at least say I put my best foot forward.”
Judging from his teammates in the locker room, that was never in question. Cornerback Josh Norman implied that his performance – the way he got the team to start grinding back – was the only bright spot of the day. Running back Adrian Peterson knew immediately that the complexion of the offense changed once he took it over. Getting reps against a live defense in what has seemed an eternity, Johnson was just grateful for a chance.
“I’ve been cut so much, been picked up the week of games. I got picked up one time the day of a game,” Johnson said. “So I really just kind of...the poise was there within myself because I just had to remember what I did before. At the end of the day, everybody probably expected me to go out and not do anything, so I really had nothing to lose. At the end of the day just go out there and go be free, just go play.”
And so now, the Redskins, below .500 for the first time this season and clinging to small playoff hopes, will return to another week of preparing a new quarterback with the first-string offense. It has been a vicious cycle since losing starter Alex Smith three weeks earlier, but with Johnson’s performance late Sunday afternoon, silver linings and belief continue to find oxygen.
“It was obvious, when he came in we started moving the ball, we started scoring points,” Peterson said. “We know we have a chance to be productive offensively. Defensively, they feed off of us as well. That right there alone gives me hope.”