QB Chris Simms and the Bucs' offense had trouble finding a rhythm in San Francisco, but Simms felt as if he saw the field well
Chris Simms made his third career NFL start on Sunday in San Francisco, and in a way it was better than either of the first two.
Simms was actually quite sharp in his starting debut last season at New Orleans, but he suffered a significant shoulder injury after just one quarter and hardly played the rest of the year. He finished this Sunday's game, so that's obviously a better outcome.
His second start was the 2004 season finale, a road game at Arizona that the Bucs lost 12-7 when the offense struggled to move the ball with any consistency. On Monday, Head Coach Jon Gruden said the Arizona game and Sunday's contest in San Francisco were actually similar in several ways, right down to the one touchdown coming on a short pass followed by an impressive run by the receiver (Michael Clayton for 75 yards in Arizona, Joey Galloway for 78 yards in San Francisco).
But even if Sunday's start wasn't a significant step forward from the preceding one, it was still better for Simms in one crucial way: He knows he'll be starting again next Sunday.
Not only was the Arizona game the last one of the year for the Bucs, who had no playoff hopes at that point, but there was no guarantee Simms would be the starter when the 2005 season began. In fact, when Brian Griese agreed to a new deal in February that would keep him in Tampa, it was quickly made clear that he would be the starter.
Now Griese is on injured reserve and the job is Simms for the foreseeable future. Gruden said before Sunday's game that he would not have a "short leash" with Simms, and he reiterated Monday that the team is committed to helping its new starter find his rhythm. It is vital that Simms knows the team has confidence in him and plans to do whatever it takes to succeed together, says Gruden.
"It's very important," said the coach. "The schedule doesn't get any easier. Our job is to do everything we can to help him. His job is obviously to make plays and move this football team and help us score and win games. Eliminate turnovers, negative plays, sacks. Those are areas that must be cleaned up in a hurry. He'll be the quarterback this week again and hopefully he can do that."
The Bucs had gone into the game with confidence, especially given Simms' solid performance in relief of Griese in the second half of a 27-13 win over Miami before the bye week. Of course, the Bucs were also running the ball well for those 30 minutes against the Dolphins. On Sunday in San Francisco, when the running game failed to materialize, Gruden said the offense was put on Simms' shoulders, and that the results weren't "his best stuff."
But Gruden has seen enough of Simms on the practice field and in his relatively limited game play to know that the young passer can make the plays that weren't made against the 49ers. That's the focus of this week, to draw out the strong performance he knows is there.
"He was quick at times," said Gruden of Simms in San Francisco. "And when we tried to get him to slow his rhythm down a little bit, maybe he slowed it down too much. Speed it up…slow it down. And I just never felt that he was fully in rhythm, like he had been in the second half against Miami. I'm going to get to the bottom of that today. He had some reads that he routinely makes. He had some throws that he routinely makes, and hits. We just didn't do that yesterday. He did do some good things. But clearly we have a long way to go."
Simms was far from dejected after Sunday's start. He felt as if he saw the field well and set up the right protections. He said he expected to play better and seemed most troubled by the nearly identical sacks he took before the Bucs' two field goal attempts, plays that turned a possible 14 points into three. His self-assurance should help the rest of the team remain confident behind him. In the end, this is a rather significant transition the Bucs are trying to make, and Sunday's game was just the first step.
"We're competing, we've been in seven football games, we've won five," said Gruden. "We've got more than half the season left to go. We've got a dramatic change right now at quarterback. And we'll try to get much better and certainly give him much better support, offensive scheme and hopefully balance that will allow him to have some success."
Brooks' Status Uncertain
Linebacker Derrick Brooks sustained a mild hamstring injury during Sunday's game, though he was able to play through it and finish the contest. His was the only injury that Gruden reported during his Monday morning press conference.
Gruden did not yet have a full diagnosis on the injury and expected the next update to come on Wednesday morning, when the players return to team headquarters to begin preparing for the Carolina Panthers.
Brooks has been remarkably durable during his 11-year NFL career, playing in every single game since he was drafted in the first round in 1995. He has current streaks of 167 straight games played and 151 consecutive starts (regular season only), and has started every Buccaneer game since the 1996 season opener.
Brooks was rested late last week, held out of Bucs' Friday afternoon practice after participating on Wednesday and Thursday. If he has to miss more practice time this week, there is precedent for his doing so and still playing on Sunday. During the 2001 season he frequently missed practice to rest a sprained foot but never came out of the game day lineup, finishing with 165 tackles, three interceptions and one of his team-record eight Pro Bowl berths.
Glad to Be Back
After playing four of their first seven games on the road, the Bucs have returned for their first two-week home stand of the season. They will play three of their next four games at Raymond James Stadium, where they have a 3-0 record this season.
The Bucs need only one more win to match their home victory total from 2004, and they've already got RJS wins as they had in all of 2003. After going 30-10 in regular-season home games during the first five years of Raymond James Stadium's existence (1998-2002), the Bucs stumbled to 7-9 at home over the last two years. Recapturing the team's past home field advantage was one of Gruden's goals heading into 2005.
Obviously, the Bucs have done that so far, while their road mark is an even 2-2. In this case, however, Gruden believes the difference between the team's home and road fortunes has more to do with execution than location. And with the 5-2 Panthers coming to town, the coach knows that his team will have to play much better than it did in San Francisco to remain undefeated at home.
"We've got to start fast, obviously, and get our crowd in the game," he said. "We've got to play a complete game. We've got to play good offense, good defense, we've got to be sound in the kicking game to win on Sunday. That's the way this team is. We're going to have to really play at our best as a unit, as a full complete football team to win on any given Sunday. If one phase or two phases let us down it's going to be very difficult for us to win."
The Bucs' best single-season home record was 7-1, set in 1999. The 2002 Super Bowl championship team went 6-2 at Raymond James Stadium, adding a playoff win over the 49ers in January.