Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Graham: McCown Would Thrive as Starter

Count RB Earnest Graham – another Buc who had to wait awhile for his shot at starting – among those who believe Luke McCown would be an outstanding choice to start at quarterback in 2009

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RB Earnest Graham (left) thinks QB Luke McCown just needs the sort of opportunity Graham got two years ago

As he came off the practice field on Thursday morning, after a short passing session with a group of receivers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Luke McCown leaped to pantomime a dunk on the crossbar in the north end zone.

Actually, it turned into a two-handed reverse dunk, and McCown finished it with a flourish, hanging on and swinging his legs high. The uprights tilted noticeably until he let go; had it been a backboard, it might have broken.

Yeah, Luke McCown can dunk. With ease. He's also got rare speed for a quarterback and some shifty moves you wouldn't expect from a six-foot-three man whose profession is supposed to hinge on his arm.

Running back Earnest Graham wasn't on the field when McCown did his Shaq impression, but he wouldn't have been surprised. Graham isn't surprised by anything McCown does on the playing field.

"I personally think – with the exception of Michael Vick when he was [in the league] and probably Vince Young – I don't think there's another athlete as good as Luke McCown at quarterback," said Graham.

That's high praise, and for the moment Buccaneer fans mostly have to take Graham's word for it because they haven't seen too much of McCown in action yet, despite the fact that he's been with the team since 2005. Yes, we know that McCown was an all-East Texas pick as both a football player and a basketball player in high school, and we saw him take off on a nifty 31-yard run against Carolina in the 2007 season finale. But McCown has just three starts and 139 passes as a Buccaneer.

That could change soon, which would give Tampa Bay fans a chance to gauge the accuracy of Graham's claims. A potential unrestricted free agent, McCown re-signed with the Buccaneers in February, with team management expressly stating that the sixth-year passer would be given an opportunity to compete for the starting job.

Graham expects McCown to take that opportunity and run with it.

"Luke needs to play, man," said the Bucs' tailback, another player who had to wait patiently for his first real shot at a starting job. "First of all, to start off there's nothing he can't do on the football field. There's not a throw he can't make. He's a great athlete. He's a very, very intelligent guy. He just needs to play, like everybody else. Where do you go if you never get the experience? Anybody in this business needs experience."

There was a time that it appeared as if McCown would get a lot of early-career experience. After being drafted in the fourth round by the Cleveland Browns in 2004, the Louisiana Tech product was on the field and in the starting lineup just 12 games into his professional career (he had also thrown one pass against Dallas in September). The Browns turned to their athletic rookie after injuries to veterans Jeff Garcia and Kelly Holcomb.

McCown was thrilled to get the experience, but it didn't exactly come in the most favorable of circumstances. His first start came against the New England Patriots, who were months away from successfully defending their Super Bowl title. Two of his next three starts came in absolutely brutal weather, and a recovered Holcomb relieved him for the season finale.

From afar, the Bucs saw something they liked in McCown and called the Browns about a month before the 2005 draft to inquire about a trade. When Cleveland spent a Saturday pick on Akron quarterback Charlie Frye, they agreed to send McCown to Tampa on Sunday for a sixth-round pick.

That's when the wait began for McCown. He was the third quarterback behind Brian Griese and Chris Simms in 2005, and both Griese and Simms (after Griese's injury) played well. He was likely to be the number two behind Simms heading into the next season, but he sustained a fluke knee injury on the practice field and spent most of 2006 on the physically unable to perform list.

Finally, in 2007, he had a chance to show the Buccaneers what he could do in a game situation. He started three games and played in two others after injuries to Garcia, most memorably leading the Buccaneers to an enormous victory at New Orleans in early December. McCown's passer rating of 91.7 and his yards-per-carry average of 9.8 offer intriguing evidence as to what he is capable of. Graham thinks putting McCown in charge of the offense will help it move towards the consistency the team has sought for some team.

"I definitely think we're moving toward that," said Graham. "It's obviously a priority, and I think we have the pieces in place to do that. I think letting Luke have a chance is a great decision. I think he probably should have been playing a long time ago. I think we're moving in the right direction. How it goes, nobody knows, but I think we're definitely going in the right direction as an offense."

Even with such new weapons as Kellen Winslow and Derrick Ward, the Bucs' offense probably won't get there overnight. And McCown, if he wins the starting job, will probably not play like a seasoned veteran in every contest. But Graham is supremely confident that, overall, McCown will be an outstanding quarterback for the Buccaneers. All the passer needs is a chance, just like the one Graham got in 2007 after injuries to Cadillac Williams and Michael Pittman.

"You need to learn your way, man," said Graham. "Like anybody else, he'll make mistakes. We see guys that have been in the league years and years and years get into games and throw four or five picks. It's just part of playing; you have to be able to deal with that. I think once Luke gets through that, he's going to play great and he'll have some games where he's not that great. We have to be there for him."

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