Tampa Bay Buccaneers

A Great Step Forward

Third-year QB Chris Simms buoyed his teammates’ confidence on Sunday with a poised and prolific performance against Washington, capped by a do-or-die two-minute drill

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QB Chris Simms averaged nearly 10 yards per throw on Sunday, standing in calmly against the blitz and delivering big plays

On a breezy, fall afternoon on which Tampa Bay Buccaneers fans eagerly welcomed back an old star, a new one may have been born.

That old star isn't exactly old, of course. It's fullback Mike Alstott, a man of just 32 years but a 10-year NFL veteran whose days as one of the centerpieces to an offense seemed to be past. On Sunday against the Washington Redskins, Alstott reconnected with the glory days, diving for two touchdowns and scoring the winning two points on sheer determination and will.

But that other one, quarterback Chris Simms, is new, in terms of both age and experienced. He is "green," talented but unproven, thrust into the spotlight whether he's ready for it or not, a man of five NFL starts who has to play like an established vet to keep the Bucs' playoff hopes on line.

Alstott already owned a place in the heart of Buc fans before Sunday; he just warmed it up with a throwback performance that could speak of more to come. Perhaps Simms put the first down payment down on his own spot.

He certainly had an impact on his coach's thinking.

Said Buccaneers Head Coach Jon Gruden: "This was a great step forward for Chris, a great step forward."

It was a strange day for the Buccaneers. The team's normally stingy defense gave up 388 yards and couldn't get off the field on third down. The running game, which provided most of the offensive pop during a 4-0 start to the season, was absent for a third straight weekend. And a kickoff return touchdown by Redskin Ladell Betts threatened to render three first-half takeaways moot.

If not for a masterful performance by Simms, it could have added up to a long afternoon, something like the Bucs' 34-14 loss to Carolina the weekend before. Instead, it was a thrilling win and a coming-out party for the Bucs' young passer, who grew up watching his father, former New York Giants star Phil Simms, in similar situations.

"Those are the games that you dream about as a quarterback," said Gruden. "His dad won many games like that; bringing those Giants from behind and this is a great start for Chris Simms. It gives our football team a real lift when we're not up to speed on defense, which we clearly weren't today and a lot of that had to do with the Redskins. It is good to know as a football player if we get the ball back to our quarterback he can do something with it. He made a great statement today in front of a lot of people."

One thing you should know about Simms: He's not exactly surprised by what transpired on Sunday. He admits to a bit of over-excitement during his bits of playing time in 2004, but he has shown a poise beyond his years this season. He's far from overwhelmed by his new situation, and he has been confident all along that he would excel as the starter.

Still, directing a two-minute drive in a critical NFL game is a career-molding experience for any young passer, and Simms didn't try to deny that Sunday's finish was anything but the thrill of a young lifetime.

"It was huge," he said. "I've never really been a part of anything like that, in college or in the NFL. In college, my only chance was the play everybody sees when Roy Williams jumps over the pile and hits me in Oklahoma; that was my only chance at a two-minute drive in college. It was big, just giving our team confidence that we can get the job done no matter what the circumstances."

Actually, Simms rallied the Bucs twice in the second half. Washington took a 28-21 lead 10 minutes into the third quarter on a long drive that followed the Redskins' turnover-aided, game-tying touchdown just after halftime. The Bucs got the ball at their own 30 after the second TD and Simms got them to midfield with a 16-yard out to receiver Ike Hilliard on the left side. Three plays later, with the pocket collapsing quickly on him on third-and-nine, Simms threw over the top to WR Edell Shepherd down the middle. Shepherd hauled it in with his fingertips for a gain of 46 yards and the Bucs scored two plays later.

Simms finished with 279 passing yards on 15-of-29 passing, throwing for three touchdowns and no interceptions. The Bucs averaged 9.6 yards per pass play, by far their highest number in that category this season.

"Early in the game they blitzed us a few times and we picked it up," said Simms. We made a few plays down the field and I think it scared them away for a little bit. They didn't blitz much in the second and third quarter. [Then] they gave us some all-out pressure and I hit the deep one to Edell Shepherd going down the middle of the field. Those are situations when the offensive line pass-protected great, just gave me a little time to get the ball up in the air for those guys to go run under and get it."

In the fourth quarter, Simms hit Galloway deep over the middle for a 33-yard gain but the Bucs couldn't get the ball in the end zone from the 10. After the defense got the ball back with 1:52 to play, Simms drove the team 54 yards for what would be the game-winning touchdown after Alstott's determined two-point run. Passes to Shepherd and Joey Galloway got the ball to the 30, then Shepherd ran a fly down the right sideline, and Simms laid it out where only Shepherd, and not diving cornerback Walt Harris, could get to it.

Simms looked to Shepherd and Hilliard a combined six times for 124 yards while starting flanker Michael Clayton watched from the sideline, out with a bruised knee. Clayton, one of the Bucs' toughest players, would have loved to have been on the field to help Simms. Those who were, though, gave him everything they had.

"[Simms] approached it like a veteran of six or seven years, unwavered," said cornerback Ronde Barber. "He knew he had some plays to make. You know he had a great cast around him, I think today, [they] played their butts off. I think the past couple weeks they haven't been giving him a lot of help."

Simms certainly played better, too. He had improved from a rough first start in San Francisco to a reasonably good game against Carolina that was lost amid a poor outcome. The step up from the Panthers game to Sunday's contest was at least as significant.

"I think each week I've been out there I've felt more and more comfortable," he said. "I felt good last week against Carolina. I made the one mistake and it cost us the game. So I just want to continue to get better each week and limit the mistakes and I knew we would come out with a victory if I could just hold up my end."

He did more than that, of course. In fact, he was a big part of the Bucs' winning edge. Simms probably didn't make a believer out of everyone on Sunday afternoon, nor should he have expected to. It was, after all, just his fifth start, and his first win since taking over the Bucs' helm. But he put a spring in his teammates' step, at the same time Alstott rekindled their passion for the power game.

Cornerback Juran Bolden said it best: "I think he showed a lot of people today that he can be that quarterback that we need."

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