A good amount of Bucs practice is affected by the fact that Chris Simms, the starting quarterback, is left-handed
On September 10, a little over nine months after he started the last game of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2005 season, Chris Simms will for the first time take a snap as an opening-day starter in the NFL.
That's a waiting period – nine months of excited anxiety; a pregnant pause, if you will – with which Simms has some recent experience. A little less than two weeks ago, on Father's Day as it deliciously turned out, Simms became a father for the first time when his wife, Danielle, gave birth to Sienna Rose.
Sienna's daddy is one of 32 men who are expected to take the first snaps of the season for their respective NFL teams. Had she come along a year earlier, that issue still would have been in doubt.
Last year, Simms was in competition with Brian Griese for the Buccaneers' starting job, but Griese had the inside track after performing very well in that capacity for most of the 2004 campaign.
Two years ago, Simms was not considered a serious threat to unseat Brad Johnson in training camp, and he was considered something of a co-number two with Griese at the beginning of the season. But Simms had drawn raves for his offseason development after his rookie season, and it was Simms who was called on to start game five after the Bucs started 0-4. Unfortunately, a shoulder injury one quarter into his starting debut put Simms on the shelf for most of the '04 season and opened the door for Griese.
Three years ago, of course, Simms was a rookie, a third-round pick expected to learn behind Johnson, whose most recent start had come in the Buccaneers' Super Bowl XXXVII victory over the Oakland Raiders.
Each of Simms' four NFL summers has been markedly different, but there has been an obvious uphill path, even in the face of injury and the rather serious competition from Griese, who departed this spring as a free agent. Last fall, Griese went down in the Bucs' sixth game and Simms got his first extended stint as the starter. After helping the Bucs complete a division-championship season and making some rather significant personal strides in the process, Simms is finally the undisputed starter heading into the ensuing training camp.
As good as Simms has been in his three previous offseasons – Head Coach Jon Gruden frequently raves about the young passer's unmatched work ethic – he has been noticeably better this year. That may in part be due to his solid spot on the depth chart.
"He's really been sharp," said Gruden. "He's made some really difficult throws. His understanding and command of the offense are much better. I think he's more confident. He'll be starting his first game as an opening-day starter. This will be the first time he's been given the ball on opening day. He still isn't the most experienced guy, but boy is he showing more poise. He's much more confident and relaxed. He's getting to second and third receivers. Just his overall presence is that much better."
The top spot also affords Simms some extra benefits on the practice field, even though there are currently plenty of snaps to go around.
"The way we set up practices are basically set up around the quarterbacks from an offensive standpoint," said Gruden. "Especially when you're left-handed, you've got to groom all your play-action passes and your movement throws for the lefty. All the ball-handling has to be practiced specifically. There are certain things, let's be honest, he does differently than previous quarterbacks here."
For one thing, the strong-armed Simms showed great accuracy on deep balls last season, a relatively new aspect in the Bucs' offense and an important weapon with the speedy Joey Galloway around. Simms also had good mobility and can throw on the run. His completion percentage of 61.0 in 2005, while not quite as high as Griese's 64.4, was outstanding.
"We're going to try to highlight the things that we feel he does well, and we're going to try to emphasize and work on the things we feel he needs improvement in," said Gruden. "One of things he needs to improve at is just taking more and more snaps, and he took about 850 of them here in the last 14 practices [of the offseason]. So we're pleased that he's gaining in every curve possible in terms of learning and experience, and he's one of the hardest-working guys I've ever been around.
"I think his experience level, his feel for things, is so much improved. He's more confident in himself. I think he understands the opponent better, and with that I think will come much more consistent play from him."
There are added responsibilities that come with being the obvious starter, of course, just as there are with becoming a new father. Simms learned that latter lesson right away, when he had to skip a golf outing with Gruden and the other Buccaneer quarterbacks on June 20, the day after Sienna's birth.
Of course, that was an easy sacrifice to make. Simms has many exciting days ahead of him in his two new roles.
"Chris was invited; he had to take a rain check because his wife gave birth," said Gruden of the golfing trip. "Danielle's healthy and happy and Chris is a father and a starting quarterback. God bless Chris Simms today."