Mike Johnson's first and second stints at calling NFL plays come nearly seven years apart. But as he noted today, there are plenty of similarities. First and foremost on his to-do list in both cases: Maximizing the performance of an under-performing quarterback who was taken No. 1 overall in the draft.
In 2003 that quarterback was then-Falcon Michael Vick. Johnson, in his first-ever press conference today, said that back then interim head coach Wade Phillips called him late on a Sunday night just as Mike Singletary did four days ago. Phillips told Johnson that he would be calling plays for the team's next contest, a road game against Tampa Bay.
"The difference between what we're doing now and what I was dealing with there was that we had Michael Vick at quarterback, and the one stipulation that I had was, don't run him. So, go play a football game with Michael Vick and don't let him run."
Johnson didn't exactly succeed on that point. Vick ran 12 times for 39 yards against the Buccaneers and then seven times for 29 yards in the season finale against Jacksonville.
But Vick also threw the ball well, connecting on four touchdown passes against just one interception in the two games and finishing with his highest passer ratings on the season. Moreover, a Falcons team that only had three victories that season, and which had just fired head coach Dan Reeves, won their final two games.
Johnson worked well with Vick, who had thrown two interceptions and no touchdowns in his only other two starts that season. He'll need to do the same with Alex Smith, who has two touchdown passes against five interceptions this season. Smith's 66.2 passer rating is better than only Jason Campbell, Brett Favre and Jimmy Clausen among starting quarterbacks.
"I think Alex has played ok," Johnson said. "He has not played great. And that's why I think our offense has not played to that level. But in saying that, we have to give him a better opportunity as coaches to make sure that he is successful. ... We're going to try to put him in a better situation to make sure that he has the success that we need him to have to win football games."
Some highlights from the press conference:
* Johnson said he would sit down with the rest of the offensive coaches and begin scripting the beginning of games. The objective, he said, is to get off to a quicker start than the 49ers have so far this season.
* Johnson said he called the plays from the booth during those two games in Atlanta but has not decided where he will be on Sunday. He said that decision might not be made until Saturday evening when the team has a walk-through at the Georgia Dome.
• He disagreed with my assessment that Smith's passes tend to sail. "Maybe one high pass, but a couple of tipped balls have been situations where we've got a guy rushing and he's backed off and batted a ball and things like that," Johnson said. "But I think for a quarterback, you have to find throwing lanes. That's why Doug Flutie could be 5-9 and be an effective passer. Because you don't throw over defensive linemen. You throw through throwing lanes. And that's where we do our fundamental football drills and we slide and we reset and we do certain things that we get him to the proper throwing lanes so the balls don't get tipped ... But I don't think the tipped balls or balls sailing on him have been problems."
• On Frank Gore: "I think Frank is a very good running back. I think he's in the top five or so running backs in the league. So you definitely want to get him the ball. I think we have other playmakers here that have the ability to make plays that will make Frank's job of running the ball easier."
* If you're looking for his philosophy, this is a good summation: "I believe that you have to be multiple and be diversified," he said. "I think you have to have multiple packages. I think you have to have two tight end packages and two back packages, and you also have to spread 'em out. And one of the basic philosophies that I believe in - I think you have to make a defense defend the entire field. I think you can't let a defense squeeze you between the numbers."
-- Matt Barrows