QB Chris Simms has shown good touch downfield, particularly against the Redskins last Sunday
The last time the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were able to accomplish what Chris Simms did on Sunday against Washington, it took two different quarterbacks, not to mention a punter and a defensive back, to get it done.
What Chris Simms did against the Redskins was make more plays downfield than the Bucs' offense sees in a normal afternoon. Specifically, he completed five passes of more than 20 yards and four of more than 30 yards. The last time the Bucs had five completions of 20 or more yards in one game was last season against Carolina on December 26, and none of those plays was longer than 22 yards.
But the last time the Bucs had four completions of over 30 yards in a game was a decade ago, and it didn't look anything like Simms' performance on Sunday.
It was a Tampa Bay-Carolina game, but it was a far cry from the intense, highly-competitive series that has arisen between the two teams since the NFC South was formed.
It was October 1, 1995. This was Carolina's expansion season, and the Bucs were in the early stages of a 7-9 campaign. Trent Dilfer started the game and completed a 31-yard pass to tight end Jackie Harris in the second quarter but was sidelined by a concussion before halftime. Casey Weldon relieved and hit wide receiver Horace Copeland with a 40-yard bomb on his third throw. In between those plays, punter Reggie Roby executed a perfect fake punt with a lob to safety John Booty that Booty took 48 yards downfield. Finally, in the third quarter, Weldon hit Harris for a gain of 33 yards on the touchdown drive that would win the game, 20-13.
It was a nice win for the Buccaneers and the downfield plays certainly helped, but it might be fair to call it a fluke. The Bucs would finish 26th in the league in passing that year, would throw only five touchdown passes and would certainly not be known for their big-play attack.
Conversely, it's fair to wonder if the latest display of long-range bombing is a sign of things to come for the 2005 Buccaneers. The Bucs believe that the big-play results against a good Washington defense – not to mention a number of other long receptions by Joey Galloway this season – are the product of talented personnel and a good scheme, and is thus repeatable.
One factor, most agree, is Simms, who has a rifle arm and, it seems so far, a nice touch on deep passes. Brian Griese made his share of big plays down the field, too, but Griese is out for the season with a knee injury and it's time to focus on the strengths of the team's new starter. Simms' strong left arm is certainly a weapon.
"[That] plays a big role," said Head Coach Gruden. "And speed also plays into that. [Edell] Shepherd has speed. Edell Shepherd can run. And Joey Galloway, this guy is a great player who can get deep. But Simms has a rare ability to throw the ball down the field, and accurately. And I think he proved that [against Washington]."
Ironically, it is Simms' improvement in other areas of his game that has led to this breakthrough. He played in a very vertical attack at Texas and was no stranger to unleashing deep bombs to former Longhorn, current Detroit Lion Roy Williams. Upon arriving in Tampa and the NFL, he had to work to find the rhythm of the Bucs' West Coast-inspired offense.
Simms had to become proficient in Gruden's offense before he could earn his coach's trust and be able to hold onto the starting job when he got it. He had to operate the more basic staples of the attack before the play-calling could be opened up to include more strikes downfield. Clearly, Simms has done that.
"I think he's come a long way," said Gruden. "He came in here with a completely different background, system-wise, than what we've asked him to do. This is a quick-rhythm, different style of offensive scheme than Texas ran. I think his decision-making, his set-ups, his delivery, everything is quicker. I think he's come a long way in this offense and I think he has great talent to go with that."
Now that talent is taking over. His 34-yard deep sideline pattern to Galloway in the first quarter on Sunday was as accurately thrown as a 10-yard out, sneaking past the defender's hands but giving the receiver room to get it inbounds. His game-winning, 30-yard bomb to Shepherd was even prettier, a gentle spiral dropping from the sky right into Shepherd's path, laid out there where the receiver never had to slow down.
As much as Simms' years at Texas helped him get a feel for the long ball, he's been working at it even longer than that. His high school team liked to air it out, too. And, of course, it doesn't hurt to get offseason work with your dad when he happens to be NFL star Phil Simms.
"He just throws a nice ball," said Shepherd. "I don't know what he did as a kid; he has a great dad. Maybe that's a part of it. Maybe it's in his genes. He can get the ball there. Whatever he did to get there, I hope he stays there."
Simms works hard to make sure he stays there. Gruden calls him the hardest-working player he's ever had at that position, and the work doesn't end when the season does. Simms takes only a short break after each campaign before loosening up his left arm again. Two weeks is enough, then he's out working with his father and his little brother, who is a junior in high school.
"I throw a lot," he said. "I don't take much time off from throwing the ball, even in the offseason. We constantly work on the fundamentals of throwing the ball. It's just like anything else – the more you do it the better you're going to get at it, the more you understand how to control the ball in different situations, different throws. I think that's the key for any good quarterback. It's just a matter of repetition, repetition, and then you become a machine out there."
Any machine that can roll out long passes with regularity is welcome in the Bucs' offense. Hypothetically, if the running game regains its punch and sets up a healthier play-action attack, the deep play could be even more of a threat. Hopefully, Simms will prove to be capable of delivering on that threat for the rest of the season. Shepherd expects him to do just that, noting that his young teammate has just about every throw in his arsenal.
"He can actually do anything with the ball," said Shepherd. "He can hang it up, he can throw it right in your face, he can knock you out with it. He can do a lot with it. He just has to learn how to control it and put it exactly where he wants to, and that takes time. He's a young quarterback and he still has time to get better."