QB Brian Griese knows he has to take an active leadership role on an offense featuring many young players
Watching the easy way with which Brian Griese carries himself in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' locker room, his unflappable demeanor at the line of scrimmage, the casual and witty way he handles a crowd of reporters around his locker, it's hard to imagine comfort being a problem for him. This is a man, the son of a former NFL star, who looks quite comfortable in his own skin, and in the trappings of a professional quarterback.
And yet a greater comfort level may be the one thing that Griese needs to take his unexpected breakout of 2004 and turn it into a full-season mastery of 2005.
The Buccaneers make their '05 debut Sunday in Minnesota, Griese's first as an opening-day starter since 2002. Given that he started 2002 in Denver under pressure to solidify his hold on the starting job for the future; he started 2003 in Miami as a backup to Jay Fiedler and in the shadow of his father, former Dolphins great Bob Griese; and he started 2004 in Tampa behind both Brad Johnson and Chris Simms, this should be the most comfortable Griese has felt in awhile.
And it is. But there's still room for improvement in that area, particularly in how well he understands what Head Coach Jon Gruden, the architect of the offense Griese is trying to make work, is trying to accomplish on game day.
"At this time last year, I was just really getting the offense down," said Griese, who actually alternated with Simms in the backup and third-string roles early last year. "I was looking forward to watching Brad Johnson play the first game and getting a feeling of how Jon Gruden called plays in a game situation. So, I really didn't know much. Towards the end of the year, I got to be in a point where I felt comfortable in the offense. I felt comfortable with the way Jon called plays. I think he felt comfortable with me.
"I think we've taken that to the next level this year. I'm looking forward to working on the game plans with Jon, and working on situational aspects of the game, and him feeling comfortable with me and, likewise, me feeling comfortable with him."
To be fair, Griese was led to the repeated use of that word by the reporter's question. It's not as if he is obsessing over the concept. Still, it's an important area of growth, because a quarterback feels comfortable when he believes he is prepared for any situation, when the flow of the offense comes naturally to him and he can tap into its best options at will. Griese put up some stellar passing numbers in 10 starts last season, including team record marks in passer rating (97.5) and completion percentage (69.3) as well as an average of two touchdowns a game, but the Bucs still want to see their offense take a significant jump up from its 22nd league ranking of a year ago.
To that end, they've given Griese the best set of weapons he's had since his strongest years in Denver. Speed receiver Joey Galloway, who forged an instant connection with Griese in the second half of 2004, was re-signed. Two high draft picks were spent on a new starting tailback, Cadillac Williams, and a pass-catching tight end, Alex Smith. Ike Hilliard was signed to solidify the third-receiver position, a trouble spot last year, and former Jet Anthony Becht gives the Bucs a complete tight end they can leave in on every down.
All of these newcomers will be pursuing a comfort level in the Bucs' offense, too. Griese has to shepherd all of this change towards a working cohesiveness. He's excited about the opportunities but still unsure how it will all play out.
"I think having a healthy Joey Galloway is going to help us," said Griese. "Michael Clayton in his second year obviously is going to help us. With Carnell Williams being in the backfield now, we've yet to see what he's really capable of doing. We have two new tight ends we're excited about. There's a lot of change from last year so there's a lot of things different. It's hard to make judgment until we really get out there and we're able to move the ball, make some plays, see which guys step up, see in the heat of the battle which guys really want the ball. Who really wants the ball when the pressure's on the line?"
Griese has worked with rookies in key roles before – such as Mike Anderson in 2000, Clinton Portis in 2002 and Michael Clayton last year – but says he's never been on a team with this many young contributors at the same time. That makes his role as a leader – particularly on the field – a little more complicated.
"My job first and foremost is to move the team to score, and there are a lot of things that go into that," said Griese. "I've told each and every one of [the young players] if they have questions about assignments or where they need to be, ask me and I'll help them. It puts a little bit more burden on me, but I'd rather we're in the right formation and they have the right assignments than for something to go wrong. I just have to prepare a little bit harder and make sure I know their assignments backward and forward, just like I know my own and I think we'll be okay."
Since Griese arrived in the spring of 2004, Gruden has raved about how intelligent the veteran passer is, how quickly he assimilates information. The team found out last fall that Griese is also calm under pressure. After the Bucs started 0-4 under Johnson, Simms was given the starting nod for Game Five in New Orleans. However, after a strong first quarter, Simms suffered a shoulder injury and had to leave the game, throwing Griese into the fire. All Griese did over his first three regular-season quarters in Gruden's system was complete 16 of 19 passes for 194 yards and one touchdown and lead the Bucs to their first win of the season.
Griese never seemed to get rattled, though he certainly regretted a few fourth-quarter interceptions that cost the Bucs late in the season. That poise will help the young players around him when things start to get shaky during Sunday's game, or when the Metrodome crowd noise cranks up to its usual ear-busting levels.
"I think [the rookies] have done a great job of studying the offense, but you know how it gets sometimes when the live bullets start coming, guys get a little bit nervous," said Griese. "So I expect in the early part of games just to be there and be accessible if they need help. I want them to feel comfortable asking me if there's anything they need to just reassure themselves about."
Obviously, Griese is secure enough in the Bucs' offense to be shifting his concern to how comfortable his teammates are. Of course, no one will truly relax until the offense begins to deliver consistently on its promising talent. Griese thinks the Bucs are poised to do just that.
"I think we have a good mix," he said. "We have some guys that have played a lot of football that are on our team now, but I'm really excited about the young guys that we have. Just the energy and the youth, there's a lot to be said for that. Now, they're going to have to learn a lot this year in the fire, but a lot of times that's the only way to learn. So, I'm excited about where we are offensively."