Chris Simms was one of two starting quarterbacks who excelled for the Bucs in 2005
The biggest problem for the quarterbacks in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' next training camp might be finding someone to carry all the helmets and shoulder pads inside at the end of practice. When every passer on the field has been an NFL starter at one point, who draws the menial tasks usually performed by rookies?
Of course, that problem presupposes the clearing of a lot of hurdles over the next seven months. The Bucs will have rare depth of experience at quarterback in camp – three of their current four passers even started games in 2005 – if they still have the same four men at the position. It remains to be seen whether the team will be able to pull that off, but the Bucs do at least jump into the offseason from this starting point: They want Brian Griese, Luke McCown, Tim Rattay and Chris Simms back in 2006.
"We're going to do all we can to go to camp next year with the four quarterbacks that we have in our room right now," said Head Coach Jon Gruden. "I think Tim Rattay was a good addition. Luke McCown is a young prospect with talent. We do, definitely, want to have all four quarterbacks as we begin our offseason program on March 20."
Gruden likes to start his offseason training with an informal "QB School," working within the NFL's limits on spring training time to give the passers a crash course – for most, a refresher course – on the team's offense. That looms just a little more than two months in the future, but it could be a whole new era after the roster moves that may be required in the interim.
Most notably, Simms is due to become a restricted free agent in March. Restricted free agents may field offers from other teams, but their original teams retain the right to match any offer or receive draft-pick compensation from the new team. Restricted free agents most often re-sign with their original teams for that reason, but then rarely have the Bucs had to deal with a quarterback in this situation.
It is also significant, of course, that the Buccaneers had two quarterbacks start and play well for them this past fall (Rattay started four games for San Francisco before being acquired in a trade-deadline deal). After setting a team record for passer rating in 2004, Griese helped the Bucs get off to a red-hot start in 2005 before succumbing to a knee injury against Miami on October 16. Simms started the rest of the way and developed very rapidly, eventually putting up very strong numbers of his own.
"The young lefty played great," said Gruden of Simms, who helped the Bucs win four of their last five games en route to the NFC South title. "Brian Griese was 5-1 as a starter. We had two quarterbacks perform well. Enough for us to win a championship here in the South division."
It is, of course, a natural and understandable position for the Bucs to want to maintain all of their depth. As this team has learned repeatedly over the last three years, and even in its Super Bowl season of 2002, it is often difficult to make it through the season with one quarterback, no matter how much the original starter is valued. That's true all over. The Jacksonville Jaguars needed David Garrard to finish out their playoff run when Byron Leftwich went down. The Steelers survived several games without Ben Roethlisberger and the Redskins had to turn to Patrick Ramsey in a critical late-season game.
Other seasons went south rapidly when quarterbacks were lost this fall, most notably in Philadelphia and New York (the Jets). The Bucs looked like they might be in the same sort of trouble when they lost their first two games after Griese's injury, but Simms proved up to the task after his first shaky outing. They found out the same thing about Griese when Brad Johnson was benched and Simms was hurt in 2004.
"Right now, we feel good about the quarterback position," said Gruden. "We lost a guy we won the world championship with, Brad Johnson. We replaced him with Brian Griese, who did quite well. When he got hurt, it was a very dark, ugly beginning [with the] two games that we lost in a row. But I credit Chris Simms tremendously with the progress he has made. Certainly, Paul Hackett has helped in that area."
That same success for Griese and Simms is part of the problem, obviously. Free agency in the NFL makes it much more difficult for teams to maintain depth at certain positions, particularly when more than one player has proved capable of starting. Though it is not something the Bucs will answer or need to answer in January, it is a legitimate question in the long run: Who will be the starter to begin the 2006 season? All the team can do now is try to keep as many of its valued players as possible and go from there.
"Every position will be scrutinized carefully," said Gruden. "We have a guy in Brian Griese who broke a Buccaneer franchise record for passing efficiency. He was 5-1 when he got hurt. He is a good player, he is a very good player, indeed. Chris Simms [was] 5-1 in the division. He is an up-and-coming guy in pro football. So we will analyze it carefully and all I can say is we would like to keep these guys here.
"We are going to try to get Chris' contract straightened out and Brian's and everybody else's. And when we do that, we will formulate a depth chart and get some finality and closure as soon as we can."