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BILLS' FAITH IN ROB JOHNSON GETS 'AMENS' FROM CHORUS OF NFL BELIEVERS

When the Bills sign a free agent or make a trade for an established player, if you ask enough disinterested parties you inevitably hear about his flaws and negatives along with the assets and affirmatives.

With Rob Johnson it's different.

I've discussed Johnson with a dozen NFL coaches, general managers and scouts since the Bills dealt their first- and fourth-round draft choices for the quarterback. The most negative thing I've heard is: "He's only started that one game against Baltimore last year."

No wonder Ralph Wilson told his people to "get it done. Make sure he's going to stay with us."

The Bills have a conviction on Johnson and that's how the NFL operates in the '90s, on conviction. Teams rise and fall on their judgment. In Buffalo's case, they went to four consecutive Super Bowls and stayed competitive for a decade mainly on the good judgment of their people.

It must buoy the confidence of Wilson, general manager John Butler and coach Wade Phillips that so many rivals are saluting their judgment on trading for Johnson.

"I'm high on him," says Kevin Gilbride, San Diego's head coach, who grins widely when discussing Johnson. "You could say I'm really high on him!"

That's obvious since the night before Gilbride spoke of Johnson the Chargers' general manager, Bobby Beathard, offered to trade the second pick in the entire draft to Buffalo for Johnson's rights.

When Buffalo made its trade with Jacksonville a month ago, to the fans Johnson was a guy who had lasted until the fourth round of the 1995 draft and had started just that one game -- even though it had been a sensational victory.

Tom Coughlin, the Jaguars' head coach, told the tale of how his team ended up with Johnson on Round Four and how he wasn't surprised when the quarterback turned out so well.

"Our whole quarterback picture changed on the Friday before our first draft," Coughlin says. "Green Bay was supposed to be trading Mark Brunell to Philadelphia, but the negotiations had been dragging on.

"I called Ron Wolf, the Packers' general manager, Friday afternoon and asked him 'what's the deal on your Brunell trade?' He told me it had stalled so I offered our third- and fifth-round draft choices for Brunell. Wolf accepted our offer.

"Until then I had intended to draft a quarterback and still wanted to get a young one. Since I was hired a year ahead of our start as an expansion team I spent the entire year scouting players, so I was high on Rob Johnson.

"The only thing that made me hesitant, and made most teams hesitant, was that he talked about wanting to play baseball. The Minnesota Twins drafted him, so everyone knew pro baseball was a strong possibility.

"He was also a Southern California kid, kind of laid back, and people had the idea he wasn't that much committed to football, and that pushed him down in the draft. After we signed him we discovered that he was totally committed. In fact we found out that he's a gym rat."

"Gym rat" is the exact expression used about Johnson by Gilbride, who was his first offensive coordinator in Jacksonville. It's also the description used by Jaguars owner Wayne Weaver, another Johnson admirer.

So why would Jacksonville trade him? Easy. Because they knew they would lose him to free agency next season and get nothing in return. Now they have enough picks for a chance to deal up to get Michigan cornerback Charles Woodson.

If the Bills had waited a year, they couldn't have afforded Johnson. If they had waited to sign him to a new contract they might have ended up with a one-season rental.

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