QB Bruce Gradkowski made a difference with his legs as well as his arm on Thursday
The final line on Bruce Gradkowski's first NFL preseason: 45 completions in 61 attempts (73.8%) for 511 yards, five touchdowns and three interceptions, leading to a passer rating of 105.3.
The final verdict: Still to be determined.
Gradkowski's roster spot is not likely in jeopardy. Teams would be queuing up on the waiver wire if the Bucs decided to clip the former Toledo star from their final 53. What remains to be decided is his exact spot on the depth chart; that Gradkowski is even in the running for the number-two spot is an indication of how ridiculously impressive he has been this August. It's fair to say that the Bucs weren't expecting to get their primary backup at quarterback when they spent a sixth-round pick on Gradkowski in April.
On Thursday night, the precocious rookie capped his surprising month with another eye-opening performance, completing 13 of 17 passes for 90 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions and a 107.5 passer rating. He also led the team in rushing with 47 yards on three carries – you read that right – converting a critical fourth down with his legs in the process. Sluggish in the first half, the Bucs' offense woke up when Gradkowski took the field and rallied from a 10-point deficit to tie the game before Houston trumped the comeback with a final field goal.
After the game, Gruden was asked if Gradkowski had done enough in August to move into the second spot on the depth chart, ahead of veteran Tim Rattay. While he did not yet have an answer to reveal on that issue, Gruden didn't hold back on his praise of the rookie sensation.
"For a young guy to come in here and complete 75 percent of the passes in a preseason game, I do not care who he is playing against," said Gruden. "His mobility, his creativity and his understanding of what we are doing are very impressive. He has a great future ahead of himself. I wanted to learn about the two [backup] quarterbacks that we have that are healthy and I think we did and we'll make that determination as we move ahead."
The Bucs are clearly committed to Chris Simms as the starting quarterback and he has done nothing to shake that confidence. But there's also nothing wrong with enjoying the different elements that a backup quarterback can bring to the offense. Obviously, Gradkowski's speed and elusiveness are intriguing; he turned one near sack into a 13-yard gain by twisting his shoulder away from the pawing of DE Seth Payne and simply accelerating out of the pocket past several would-be tacklers.
But Gradkowski also seems to have an innate feel for the game. On one 16-yard completion to David Boston over the middle, the rookie stepped up quickly under pressure and fired a pass in an almost sidearm motion to get it through the coverage. As Gruden has pointed out in the past, a quarterback doesn't always have the luxury of throwing with picture-perfect mechanics.
Some of it, particularly the scrambling, seems to come naturally to Gradkowski.
"I was just reacting out there," he said. "They have to cover our guys and the middle just opens up. We have some guys out there making some great plays. We had some good drives. We were able to mix some things up and that is hard for defenses to stop."
Gradkowski is refreshingly upbeat and eager, but he isn't making any predictions. He's obviously pleased with his own progress to this point, but he's ready to accept whatever role the team has in store for him. That's not to say he lacks confidence.
"I cannot say that I wouldn't imagine [starting this well] because I set high standards for myself," he said. "I just try to take one day at a time and not really look back at it. You just have to be ready each and every day in this league. I just try to get better every day."
The Buccaneers throw "sudden change" drills into almost every training camp practice, exercises in reacting to extremely abrupt game developments.
The NFL has thrown a sudden change into the career of tight end Doug Jolley, who was traded from the New York Jets to the Buccaneers on Thursday. That's a little bit harder to absorb than a fake turnover inside the five-yard line. Ten days before the start of the regular season – and two days before final cuts – Jolley must join a new team, move to a new city, learn a new offense and carve a new niche for himself.
"It's a little bit surreal," said the fifth-year veteran, who actually flew to Houston to join his new team. "I'm trying to take a deep breath for a second, let myself get situated. But I'm very excited to be in Tampa."
The positive aspect of arriving via a trade is that your new team clearly covets you. Jolley has been a part of two trades in the last 20 months – he came to the Jets in an April of 2005 swap that included New York's first-round pick – and the latest one has dropped him into a situation that appears favorable. Jolley declined to elaborate on his circumstances in New York, but he obviously appreciates this latest opportunity.
"It was surprising in some ways but not in others," said Jolley of receiving word of the trade. "But I'm very excited to be here in Tampa – great team. I've played against them a few times and watched a lot of guys who have played here. Watching Coach Gruden, the way he operates, he likes to change it up a lot and use the tight ends, so yeah, I'm excited."
The Bucs have seriously reworked the tight end position since the end of the 2004 season. Another former Jet, Anthony Becht, was signed early in the 2005 offseason and he started every game last year, excelling in particular with his run-blocking. Alex Smith was picked up in the third round of the '05 draft and he promptly caught 41 passes as a rookie. Jolley can help the Bucs in both categories and add more juice to the two-tight end sets that worked so well in 2005.
"Anthony Becht and Alex Smith are great tight ends," said Jolley. "Hopefully I can just come in and work with those two guys and we'll have some varied weapons on offense. I just want to come in here and hopefully contribute.
"I'm just going to come in and do whatever the coaches ask me to do. Try to get Cadillac [Williams] his yards and try to get the ball in the end zone no matter who gets it in there or how it gets in there."
Preparing for the Real Thing
After capping off a convoluted preseason schedule that included a final game just five days after the previous outing, the Bucs will have a full 10 days before taking the field again. That next game, however, counts.
During the preseason, the Bucs split their focus between specific game preparation and general roster evaluation. Now the team's attention will be fully on the upcoming opponent, the Baltimore Ravens.
Buccaneer players will be given Friday off after returning to Tampa at approximately 4:00 in the morning following Thursday's game. The players also have Saturday to themselves. The team will practice on Sunday – a so-called "bonus" day – before settling into the usual regular-season schedule on Monday. That means a light workout on Monday, an off day on Tuesday and heavy practices on Wednesday and Thursday.
The regular season begins on Sunday, September 10, with a visit by the Baltimore Ravens to Raymond James Stadium.