QB Chris Simms has compiled a passer rating of almost 90 over the Bucs' last four games
John Wade, veteran center for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, said something interesting about Chris Simms, his young teammate, the other day.
The specific topic was three straight last-minute drives Simms had engineered in dire situations against Washington, Atlanta and Chicago. The first two produced thrilling victories; the last went unfulfilled when the Bucs missed a 29-yard field goal. Taken together, they had cast Simms, the starting quarterback since Brian Griese's season-ending knee injury in Week Six, in a new light.
Hey, this kid can play.
No one had doubted Simms' tools, but he was as unproven as any young player with two career starts. One of the things that would have to emerge – or not emerge, and thereby leave lingering doubts – was positive performance under extreme pressure. Simms had gone a long way in three weeks in proving he was that type of quarterback.
But what the questioners wanted to know was how Simms was in the moment. When the heat was on, how was the third-year passer handling himself in the huddle? And how was he handling his troops? Was he in control?
Wade obviously had a good perspective to field this question. His assessment of Simms in crunch time: "The same. Even keel. No ups and downs. He just plays. He's calling them out and we're going out there expecting to execute."
Keep in mind, this is the same quarterback who had admitted to an issue with over-excitement early in his first few starts. It wasn't so much that he was nervous; he was just eager. Either way, some errant passes were the result, an issue compounded by his rocket left arm.
All of which serves to remind us that it's impossible to fully judge a young player on the basis of just a game or two. Last year, Simms made his first career start in Week Five at New Orleans and looked quite sharp…for a quarter, until an awkward landing on a sack by Will Smith ended his day and kept him out for basically two months.
Based on the impression from that quarter alone, Simms appeared ready to thrive in the NFL. But his next start, in the season finale at Arizona last year, didn't go nearly as well.
Simms' first start this year, at San Francisco the day before Halloween, didn't go well, either. But he was just getting started, and we could no more predict his future on that game than on the single quarter in New Orleans. Since that 15-10 Buccaneer loss, Simms has taken obvious steps forward every week and is now operating Tampa Bay's offense very efficiently. His calm production in the two-minute drill is just one area in which he has begun to thrive.
"I definitely have matured some," said Simms of just the last five weeks of football. "On a down-to-down basis I'm playing smarter football. I don't think I can say anything more than that. I've just had more reps and a little bit more experience since the last time we played [Carolina]. Of course, that makes me feel more comfortable and I'm sure it makes the offense more comfortable, too."
In his last four games, Simms has completed 57 of 99 passes for 722 yards, four touchdowns and just one interception. That equates to a very strong passer rating of 89.7. The Bucs have won three of those four games, and in the three wins he took just one sack.
Those four games represent all the work Simms has received since the last time the Bucs and Panthers met. Simms actually looked very sharp against Carolina's smothering defense for the first half of play, but an interception returned for a touchdown early in the third quarter – probably the pass Simms regrets the most in his six starts this season – put the game out of reach and let the Carolina pass-rushing dogs loose for the last 25 minutes.
Now Simms and the Bucs get another crack at the Panthers, and the quarterback thinks things can go much differently as long as the game remains tight and Carolina isn't in the position it was in the second half of the contest in Tampa.
"We don't have to get the lead, we've just got to stay close," said Simms. "You don't want to get behind the 8-ball too far. We just don't want to get into a game where they know we're going to have to pass the ball every down. I'm not saying we can't win that way, but it would just be a whole lot easier to manage if we stayed within striking distance all game long."
Yes, Simms is confident the Bucs can hang with the first-place Panthers, even if Carolina has beaten Tampa Bay five straight times. Actually, Simms is pretty much confident in general. That's not unusual in a professional athlete, of course, but Simms' belief in himself is very easy to take. He doesn't come off cocky and he's not at all aloof. He's very quick to smile and he always appears to be having fun – and, come to think of it, he probably he is. The son of former NFL star quarterback Phil Simms, he is where he always wanted to be.
Maybe that's why things don't seem to bother Simms too much. Criticism, of which he has taken more than his share dating back to his college days at Texas, doesn't seem to faze him. He listens to the critics, admits when he believes they have a valid point and then works on improving himself. That's especially true when the pointed remarks are coming from his coaches, as they did last spring when Head Coach Jon Gruden pointed out some needed areas of improvement.
All of it seems to roll off Simms, at least the parts that would make many of us grit our teeth, refuse to face our critics and spend a few dark hours alone in our thoughts. He absorbs the parts that can help him and moves on.
Seriously, try to wipe the smile off this guy's face. It's harder than you think, even for opposing teams.
Are you going to hit him? Blitz him relentlessly and make sure he's on the ground, even after a successful throw? Take a glimpse at his somewhat lean frame and think, we're going to knock this young guy around until he's green for a different reason?
"Me personally, I don't care about getting hit," said Simms. "I tell the linemen that all the time. As long as I get the ball off, I don't care. You've just got to hang in there as a quarterback. You hang in there and hang in there and then all of a sudden you hit a big play to Joey Galloway down the field or you break a big run. I've been playing for too long – I started at the University of Texas playing against good defensive players and now I'm here in the NFL – to get intimidated by much."
How about a little cold and precipitation, which are apparently possibilities this Sunday in Carolina?
"Some good old North Jersey weather, as far as I'm concerned," said Simms, smiling of course. "I grew up playing in that kind of weather so I don't really worry about it a whole lot. I played a lot of high school games in the snow and five-degree temperatures. You don't like playing in that, but I'll definitely be ready for it."
How about games like the one last weekend in Baton Rouge, in which he played an outstanding, error-free day but the Bucs had only 10 points to show for it, albeit in a winning effort? Wouldn't he like to be lighting up the scoreboard like a pinball machine?
"Nobody's worried about that," he said. "If we win 6-3 this week I don't think anybody will be disappointed with that, either. You just win ballgames. You do it however you have to do it week to week. I know as a player and other offensive players, there are very few of us who think about stats and worry about points on the board. It's just, did we get enough points to win the game? And that's all there is to it."
Simms' work-now, worry-late approach seems to be working quite well for the Bucs, who could have gone in the tank when Griese went down. After all, not much was expected of this team when camps broke across the NFL this summer. A 4-0 start was eye-opening, but it didn't convince all of the critics. The Bucs were 5-1 when their starting quarterback hit injured reserve; after a loss at San Francisco in the next game, there were some who thought the team might have a tough time getting to .500 by season's end.
They might have been right had Simms simply ran in place. Instead, he has steadily improved, and the Bucs have remained in the thick of the playoff race.
"He's better, he's a better player," said Gruden. "Overall, in every area, he's better. He's more calm. He's just better. He's got better feel for the speed of the game, he's seeing more, he's showing tremendous poise and he's made some unbelievable throws. I'm really excited about what he's done. He's getting better in every area that you can get better in as a quarterback."
Can he guide the Bucs through the crowded NFC race over the last month as well as he led the offense through the Redskins', Falcons' and Bears' defenses when it really mattered? Well, that's something else we'll soon learn about Simms. But you can bet he'll enjoy every minute of it.
"I think every game from here on out is pretty much a playoff game atmosphere," he said. "We'll be excited. We realize [the Carolina fans] are going to be revved up and ready to go. We've just got to bring our A game."