Rookie QB Bruce Gradkowski has taken well to the terminology involved in Head Coach Jon Gruden's offense
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers like what they have at quarterback, but they also felt the need to make an addition to the position.
The Bucs have youth, enthusiasm, drive and a cannon arm in Simms. They have experienced reserves in Fiedler and Tim Rattay. They have balance, depth and future promise. They have a plan to get through the 2006 season.
And they also have Bruce Gradkowski.
That's almost a separate matter altogether. Though stranger things have happened, the Buccaneers aren't likely to be relying on Gradkowski this season. The rookie from Toledo isn't expected to challenge Simms as the starter this summer, and most young passers in Gradkowski's position find themselves filling the inactive third QB slot on fall game days. And even that role will have to be earned in August.
Rookie quarterbacks have been known to start, of course, even some of those taken after the first round. See King, Shaun, circa 1999. But, unless the rookie in question is a top-10 pick, a "franchise" quarterback, that's rarely part of the plan. King spent most of his rookie year in the three-hole before injuries to Trent Dilfer and Eric Zeier shoved him into the limelight. Before that, the last rookie to open a game for the Buccaneers was Trent Dilfer, who made two scattered starts in 1994.
But that doesn't make this first summer in Tampa insignificant for Gradkowski.
The Buccaneers never seem to rest in their handling of the quarterback situation; witness two separate trades last year to bring in Rattay and the now-injured Luke McCown. They seek to make it clear that there are no placeholder positions among their quarterback roster spots. As much as the Bucs valued Simms and Brian Griese last spring, they still snapped up McCown because they saw eventual starting capabilities. Gradkowski may not be an immediate threat to Simms, but he's also not just killing time in Tampa. He needs to prove that he has a future in Head Coach Jon Gruden's system, and so far he has done nothing but impress.
"We like our quarterback situation," said General Manager Bruce Allen. "I think if you look around the league, everybody has somewhat of a different philosophy. There's some back-up quarterbacks that you can't even name who they are, who have been there for five or six years. The guys that we have we are developing into our system with our coaches. Luke McCown was making great improvement in his game and now it's going to be set back for a little while. Tim Rattay looks completely different than he did after we traded for him and we are real pleased with Bruce Gradkowski's improvement."
The Bucs didn't necessarily go into this year's draft looking for help at the quarterback position, but they couldn't pass up Gradkowski when he was still on the board in the sixth round. At 6-1, Gradkowski doesn't have the height of many NFL passers, he won't match Simms in arm strength and he played in a type of shotgun, no-huddle offense at Toledo that isn't prevalent in the pros. Those sorts of things may have kept him out of the first day of the draft, but they didn't negate all the things the Bucs liked about him: athleticism, accuracy, competitiveness, intelligence and toughness, to name a few.
Gradkowski got to Tampa five days after the draft and immediately made a good impression, performing well in that weekend's rookie camp.
"Strong, very strong," said Gruden of Gradkowski's first bit of professional work. "He's not used to being in the huddle calling plays. He's called the majority of his plays himself at the line of scrimmage with some help from the sidelines. So just the language, speaking the language, is a challenge for him at this point. But he's got a lot of talent, he's very mobile and we're really pleased with what we saw."
The negative in Gradkowski's non-traditional experience at Toledo could also be a positive in some ways. He has shouldered a huge amount of responsibility and handled it well. He has had to grow adept at recognizing what the opposing defense is trying to accomplish. And he has proven that he can be quick on his feet, both physically and mentally.
That may be why, a month after making that first impression, Gradkowski was still catching the coaches' eyes on the Bucs' practice field. This time, they were pleased with the progress he had made in absorbing Gruden's attack.
"I really am impressed with the nature in which he's learned this offense," said Gruden. "It's a very verbal system, a lot to say and a lot to see and a lot to do. But in a short time I've seen huge leaps and gains in his performance."
Still, spring and early summer are, relatively speaking, forgiving periods on the practice field. Mistakes are expected, and are considered learning experiences. They are part of the process that lays the foundation for an effective training camp and a successful season.
Once the team hits camp, however, errors aren't as easily tolerated, even "rookie mistakes." Gradkowski has impressed to this point, but his biggest tests are still to come. The Bucs think he can be a part of their future; they'll find out more in camp.
Right now, they like what they see.
"He's a good player," said Gruden. "He's fast, he can run. He's got a quick, accurate arm and he's mentally tough. He can take the wrath from the players, from the coaches. I think he might even be able to take the wrath from [the media], too.
"I think the players like him. He's a charismatic fellow who we look forward to leading our football team at some point."