QB Bruce Gradkowski has shown he's adept at reading defenses, but the Saints will test that skill on Sunday
When asked about the biggest challenge facing quarterback Bruce Gradkowski, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' rookie starter, in his first NFL start, Jon Gruden had a joke at the ready.
"For him," said Gruden, "it's not to throw up."
Ever since Chris Simms gleefully reported witnessing Gradkowski tossing his cookies before the Bucs' preseason opener in August, the good-natured rookie has endured endless ribbing on the topic. It hasn't bothered him a bit; in fact, Gradkowski readily admits that he launches his lunch quite often before games, and that he even considers it a good omen.
Gruden doesn't really care if Gradkowski keeps his pregame meal down. The coach is much more concerned with his rookie passer not losing the football. Turnovers have hurt the Buccaneers badly during their 0-3 start, and it's obvious Gruden has studied the problem intently. He's got the statistics down to a T.
"Protect the football," said Gruden. "Forty-six percent of the points we've given up on defense have come off turnovers. You turn the ball over seven times, interceptions, in three games, that's going to get you beat. We can't turn the ball over. We've got to keep our defense in the game, alive and functioning normally. That's the big thing: Protect the football."
Overall, the Bucs have allowed 67 points through three games. Thirty-one of those have come directly off turnovers on touchdown returns or on scoring drives set up by the giveaways. Opponents are averaging two drives per game that start inside Buccaneer territory, and five of those six drives have resulted in points – two touchdowns and three turnovers. By comparison, the Bucs' offense has all of two drives beginning in opponent territory this season, leading to one touchdown.
At least the Bucs' ball-carriers and pass-catchers have held on to the rock. Technically, Tampa Bay has eight turnovers this season, because the desperation pitch that Michael Pittman threw on his game-ending kickoff return last Sunday was recovered by a Panther. That one is a turnover in name only, in that the game was over no matter who ended up with the ball. Other than that statistical hair-splitting, the Bucs haven't lost a fumble yet. In fact, they haven't even put the ball on the ground once.
The problem, of course, has been interceptions, and they've come in a variety of manners – tipped balls, errant throws, great defensive plays. With Gradkowski under center, there is the obvious concern that additional picks will come from how green he is in reading defenses. That would be a worry with any starting quarterback, but Gruden feels comfortable with Gradkowski's defensive literacy.
"He wouldn't be our starting quarterback in Week Four of the season, wouldn't have earned the right to be our backup, if we didn't think he could read a defense," said Gruden. "Now, whether or not he can read a defense during a game, in a regular-season game, remains to be seen. But I'm confident that he can."
Interestingly, Gruden balances his sermon on ball security with an indication that he's not going to try to rein Gradkowski in. The rookie from Toledo is a very good runner, one of the many ways in which his game differs from that of Simms. Gruden wants Gradkowski to play the game the way that comes naturally to him.
"Put your own spin on the position," said the coach. "It doesn't have to be exactly like you've seen it on our cut-ups in the last four or five years. You can put your own spin on it, and we're hoping that's an asset for us."
The Buccaneers' first official injury report in a week and a half, released Wednesday, holds no real surprises. Simms is obviously not going to play – Gruden labeled him "out indefinitely" – and the four other players who badly needed the bye week rest are all considered questionable.
That would be guard Davin Joseph (knee), cornerback Brian Kelly (foot), tight end Dave Moore (rib) and linebacker Ryan Nece (knee). The good news: Both Joseph and Kelly practiced on Wednesday.
Joseph hasn't played since suffering a knee injury on the practice field before the season opener. The Bucs subsequently made it clear that they expected their rapidly-rising rookie to be out until at least after the bye week. Thus, if Joseph returned for the New Orleans game, that would indicate swift progress.
Joseph was simply relieved to be back at work.
"It feels good to be back," he said. As far as where I'm at, you've got to ask [the training staff] for all those details. It feels good to be back with the guys out on the field again."
Simms to Speak
Simms, who was released from the hospital after having a splenectomy following the previous Sunday's game against Carolina, visited the Bucs' new facility on Wednesday and observed some of the afternoon practice. Obviously, Simms has not spoken to the media since suffering a ruptured spleen against the Panthers and spending the next week in the hospital.
Simms will speak about his situation for the first time on Thursday afternoon. The Bucs have announced a 3:00 p.m. press conference for that purpose. The press conference will be carried live on Buccaneers.com and will be available on demand shortly after its conclusion.
Simms currently remains on the team's 53-man roster, and the team has not yet indicated if the fourth-year quarterback is going to play again this season. The Bucs will rely on their observations of Simms over the next several weeks to determine whether he should be placed on injured reserve.
"I'm not going to say anything other than we're going to keep him on the active roster and see what happens here in the next seven to 10 days," said Gruden. "As I get information from our training staff, we'll sit down as an organization and do what we deem is best for us."
Obviously, Simms will be the deactivated quarterback on Sunday at New Orleans, since he remains on the active roster. The Bucs have not signed another passer to the 53-man squad – they did add first-year quarterback Bryan Randall to the practice squad on Monday – and Gruden reiterated on Wednesday that there is no hurry to do so.
"There are 10 other teams that are [going with only two quarterbacks]," he said. "We're not the only team in the league that's contemplating that. There are 10 teams in football that are going with two guys from the very beginning of the season. We have Luke McCown who's making great strides. I think he's got a short lease now on his rehab; he's almost done. Maybe in the next couple of weeks he returns as our third."