QB Luke McCown gets his work in after practice as his recovery from a knee injury counts down to the last few weeks
Someday, perhaps even this season, Luke McCown will be lofting passes in Joey Galloway's direction.
McCown will likely discover what many quarterbacks have before him: It's a joy to have the fastest man in the NFL as your target. McCown, though, has a reason to appreciate his veteran teammate even before the two share the field on some near Sunday.
It was Galloway, who has experience returning from a serious knee injury, who helped McCown define his own recovery and find the light at the end of the tunnel. The key point Galloway imparted to his young Tampa Bay Buccaneers teammate was this: The last three months have not been about fixing the right knee ligament McCown injured on the practice field in late June.
"Joey had a great one-liner for me the other day," said McCown. "He said, 'You know what? The day you had your surgery, your knee was fixed. And it's fixed. Now you've got to get your strength back, but your knee is fixed. So it's all in your mind.'"
In 2000, in his first game with the Dallas Cowboys after coming over from Seattle in a blockbuster trade, Galloway tore the ACL in his left knee and was lost for the season. In 2004, in his first game with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after coming over from Dallas in another swap, Galloway suffered a groin injury that would cost him more than half of that season. In both cases, through hard work and determination, he returned completely to form, his blazing speed intact even as he crossed over into his 30s.
By comparison, at least to Galloway's 2000 mishap, McCown's knee injury was less severe. It required surgery but not the very lengthy rehab period brought on by a full ACL tear. Rather than place him on injured reserve, the Buccaneers used the reserve/physically unable to perform list to keep him off the 53-man roster, knowing that would give McCown the option of returning to the field this season. Players who go on PUP at the beginning of the season are eligible to return after six weeks of the schedule have been completed. For the Bucs, that would be after their October 15 meeting with the Cincinnati Bengals.
Given the spleen injury just suffered by starter Chris Simms on Sunday and the elevation of rookie Bruce Gradkowski to the starting role, the timing of McCown's return has suddenly taken on more significance. The third-year man who arrived via a draft-day trade with Cleveland in 2005 could obviously help restore the team's depth at the quarterback position. McCown also has some starting experience, having opened four games for the Browns as a rookie in 2004.
Thus, while the team's primary task over the current two weeks between games has been to prepare Gradkowski for his first start, there have also been a lot of eyes on McCown. He is not allowed to practice with the team at this point, but he gets his work in after practice under the direction of Jon Gruden, Paul Hackett and the team's training staff. His progress has been outstanding and he could be physically ready when the PUP date is cleared.
"I can only tell you how I feel right now, and I feel good," said McCown. "I believe at this point it's all mental. There's going to be a hurdle that I'm going to have to climb, mentally, to trust it. There would be a point, hopefully in the next couple weeks, obviously after Week Six, that I would like to take a week to run some plays, take a week before I step right in. Whatever plans they have for me to play, or if Bruce does well, whatever, I would like to have a week to kind of regroup and get a little bit of timing and things like that. But we'll see how it goes. That's the coach's decision, and it's the doctor's decision first, and we'll see how it goes."
McCown's knee is wrapped as he comes off the playing field, but it's not in a brace. As Galloway pointed out, the ligament is healed. Now it's a matter of conditioning and regaining his feel for the game. The sometimes lengthy post-practice sessions are helping that process along.
"I just got done throwing maybe 70 balls, doing 70 drops or so," said McCown with a laugh on Thursday. "One time in my life I've thrown 70 times in a game, and that was my freshman year against Miami. I don't believe I'll do 70 drops probably ever again, but just in case. It's just about conditioning, the mechanics of it all. I'm just shaking the rust off a little bit – throwing motion, feet, things like that."
Meanwhile, Gradkowski continues his crash course. The Bucs are quite confident in their brash rookie out of Toledo, particularly given his string of outstanding performances in the preseason. However, since Gradkowski has yet to make an NFL start, it's safe to say there are unknown waters ahead for the team. It is at least possible that McCown will be pushing for his turn under center when he gets back on the field. While he feels for Simms and is rooting for Gradkowski's success, McCown admits that, if the opportunity to start presents itself, he'll pursue it vigilantly.
"I'm a competitor," said the former Louisiana Tech star and fourth-round draft pick. "I play the game because I want to play and I love to play. Whatever circumstance I'm in, that's what I'm dealt and that's what I have to do.
"You don't get a lot of shots. I played well in the preseason my rookie year, too. I played fair when I got to start four games. And I got traded the next season. So you don't get a lot of opportunities, so when it comes along you like to take advantage of it no matter what the situation you're in. Unfortunately, I didn't get to take any snaps during training camp or through the preseason. I don't have that timing right now. That's going to be another stepping stone to kind of work my way up, but it can be done. And I've got a lot of confidence, a lot of faith in what I do."