Head Coach Jon Gruden is trying to get as much of the playbook as possible into Bruce Gradkowski's memory
As he approached the usual semicircle of news cameras on the edge of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' practice field on Wednesday afternoon, Head Coach Jon Gruden stopped for a second to witness another arc of reporters taking shape just a few feet to his right.
The focal point of that competing group was rookie quarterback Bruce Gradkowski, who had just finished his first NFL practice as his team's designated starter and was about to meet the media at the exact same time as his coach.
"Quite a sight, isn't it?" said Gruden, bemused.
Actually, yes, it is somewhat amazing to see the wide-eyed 23-year-old, a sixth-round pick who was commanding Toledo's offense just nine months ago, already slated to start an NFL game. In a year in which three quarterbacks went among the first 11 picks of the draft – and 10 passers in all went before Gradkowski – it is the Buccaneers' upstart who will be the first rookie quarterback to start this season.
That's the product of Brian Griese's departure in March, Luke McCown's knee injury in June, Gradkowski's own sparkling performance in August and, unfortunately, Chris Simms' serious spleen injury on Sunday. What makes the Buccaneers more comfortable with this situation than one might expect is how well Gradkowski has handled the huddle – not the one formed by cameras on this day after practice but the one on the field when the offense is in action.
"Everything we've seen of him and the way he reacts around the team is a positive," said General Manager Bruce Allen. "We see it as a great opportunity for him to hopefully take the reins and run with them. [We're] not concerned whether a person is a rookie or a 15-year veteran. We're concerned about how the player fits in. Bruce demonstrated that he was very capable."
Gradkowski does have an unmistakable air of confidence about him, as well as a football maturity apparently beyond his age. Those traits alone don't guarantee him any particular level of success, but they should help him handle the all-out pressure tactics most defenses like to throw at rookie passers.
They may also help him gain command of an offense that already has a lot of very young contributors. That process started out well on Wednesday during a bye-week practice the team extended a bit specifically to give Gradkowski some more work.
"I thought he did a good job," said Gruden. "I thought our team responded to it, also. It's a tough situation and it's a great challenge, and if anybody can do it, he can do it. We've got to help him."
Simms, who just turned 26 at the end of August, was one of the league's younger starters as well, but he was in his fourth season in Gruden's system. Gradkowski obviously showed that he was a quick learner during his impressive preseason performances, but it would be a stretch to say he knows the playbook as well as Simms. Does he know enough to keep most of the offense's options open to Gruden?
"Well, we'll find out," said the coach. "He did a good job today and we'll just take it day by day. But he is a rookie quarterback, he did get a lot of turns in training camp for good reason and I think he's got a pretty good handle on a lot of things. We'll see how it goes here day to day. We'll judge it day to day."
Wednesday was day one, and it certainly didn't feel like any of the previous days to Gradkowski, who won't try to muffle his excitement. As badly as he feels for Simms, he's relishing the opportunity to be dropped into the middle of a high-pressure situation.
"Yeah, there's a different beat," said Gradkowski. "You have to step your game up a level. The guys are looking at you. All the eyes in the huddle are on you. So I have to be confident, I have to make the right decisions and just be a good leader.
"I love this position. I love the pressure on you, especially starting out in New Orleans. I'm looking forward to it. It's going to be very exciting and we're going to have fun."
Gruden enjoys Gradkowski's exuberance and doesn't expect him to be a robot. This is the same young man who threw up on the sideline before his first preseason game – it's a bit of a habit of his and, he says, generally a good omen – then played like he'd been in the league for years.
"I expect him to be nervous," said Gruden. "I know veteran players who have played 10, 12 years who get very excited and nervous. That's just part of the job. I want him to come out here and execute our offense, move our football team and put his own spin on the position. We're excited for him."
The Bucs' bye week gives Gradkowski a few extra days to become comfortable at the helm of the offense, though this turn of events means he'll have a busier weekend than he was expecting. He plans to take a little time to relax, but it's a safe bet that he'll lead the team in video study over the next 10 days. Gradkowski says he owes it to his veteran teammates to be as prepared as possible. In return, his fellow Bucs are trying to alleviate the pressure on him as much as possible.
"They're just saying to play my game and not worry about it," said Gradkowski. "They know that I'm going to work hard and I'm going to be there for them. I'm just going to try to get the ball in their hands and trust those guys because there's a great group of guys around me."