QB Chris Simms looked and felt relaxed during his first regular-season work of 2005 on Sunday
Derrick Brooks was hustling to find him a football for his warm-up throws, and about 20 other teammates were yelling at him to get moving. All he needed was his helmet.
Chris Simms eyes had just tracked Brian Griese's deep sideline pass down the far side of the field, so Simms wasn't yet aware that, back near midfield, Griese was down on the grass, clutching his left knee and clinching his teeth in pain.
Simms didn't have time for a lengthy search for his helmet. Fortunately for him, it was in an unexpected place: On top of his head.
Simms generally doesn't wear or even carry his helmet with him during games, and on most afternoons he doesn't need it. He has served as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' second-string quarterback all season and for much of 2004, which means he rarely sees any game action. But Simms does stay involved in the conversations between Griese and the coaching staff, and that involves tuning in to the transmissions between the sideline and the radio in the QBs' helmets.
Usually, he does that by holding onto a radio, even though there's a receiver in his helmet. Sunday, he wanted his hands free.
"For whatever reason yesterday I didn't feel like hauling the walkie-talkie around to hear coach call the plays," said Simms. "I just left my helmet on my head to listen to them that way, and good thing I did."
A good thing indeed, because a sideline scramble for his equipment could have led to chaos. Within minutes he was in the game, trying to hit wide receiver Joey Galloway deep down the same sideline while absorbing a hit from a Miami Dolphins' defensive lineman.
His helmet definitely came in handy at that moment. It kept his head in the right place and shape.
In fact, that's something both Simms and the Buccaneers feel good about, as they contemplate the distinct possibility that the third-year passer is about to see a lot of action: His head is in the right place.
The knee injury that Griese suffered when linebacker Zach Thomas rolled into his planted left leg on Sunday has yet to be fully diagnosed. If it means a lengthy absence for Griese, Simms will be the starter for a 5-1 team that definitely has its eyes on the playoffs. Thanks in part to his poised relief effort against Miami, the Bucs are confident they can continue winning with Simms at the helm.
"What you have to like is how he handled the situation; how he handled the team; his calmness; how he ran the team," said Quarterbacks Coach Paul Hackett. "Certainly he made some nice throws, particularly coming out in the second half and completing seven in a row, and that had a huge impact. But I think the big thing was his calmness, his confidence in feeling that, 'Hey, I'm in my third year in the system.'"
As recently as this preseason, Simms admitted to getting a little overly excited when his number was called to go into the game. That's why he sometimes struggled early during his outings before settling down and getting into a rhythm. But he felt immediately comfortable on Sunday, and that showed in the way he started the second half, after his very brief cameo at the end of the second quarter.
Simms says the game has 'slowed down' for him, using that QB lingo to describe how much more naturally he is reading the field now in his third year.
"I think, all-in-all, I'm just a lot more relaxed," he said. "Last year, I was ready to go and there's no doubt in my mind I would have performed well last year. I think this year I just feel better out there. I know what to expect. Even yesterday when I went in I felt extremely relaxed. No jitters no happy feet – I felt like I was just going to sit in there and make some throws down the field."
Last year, Simms got the call as the starter in the season's fifth game, replacing Brad Johnson. But he sustained a shoulder injury after less than one quarter of play at New Orleans and was replaced by Griese, who quickly established a firm grip on the job. Simms' next start was in the season finale at Arizona, with Griese sidelined by a foot injury, and it was not the young passer's best outing. During the offseason, Head Coach Jon Gruden publicly called for improvement from Simms, who took his coaches words in stride and redoubled his efforts.
Gruden saw a more comfortable, complete player on Sunday.
"Well, he was different yesterday," said the coach who made Simms his third-round pick in 2003. "He did some good things. He made some key audibles, found his complementary receivers a couple of times, and showed good poise. He's matured a lot in this system. I believe that. We've got to prove that. That's what we'll begin to do today."
Gruden said the offense would change a bit out of necessity if Simms is under center, given that he's left-handed and a different type of passer than Griese. While Griese's calling card is his accuracy, Simms brings a bit more mobility and an absolute cannon of a passing arm.
Hackett doesn't expect the play-calling to change too much if Simms is in the game, but he also recognizes the obvious differences in the two passers.
"I think Coach [Gruden] is very comfortable with what he's done for all these years and we'll do the same thing," said Hackett. "I think the difference is now you've got a guy who I call a 'driver.' He can take a football and drive it physically into the intermediate areas much differently than Brian can. That doesn't mean that Brian doesn't throw them in there, but the ball gets there differently. And that's what we're dealing with now, a guy who can just with a flick of his arm rocket the ball in the air."
The problem comes, of course, when Simms relies too much on that arm strength and tries to force a pass into too tight of an area. He owned up to doing that once against the Dolphins, on a third-down pass that was nearly intercepted at the goal line in the third quarter. However, he was clearly in a rhythm with the rest of his throws, and he understands that he's not being asked to win games single-handedly.
"We've got a good football team, all in all," said Simms. "The defense is without question one of the two or three best defenses in the NFL, so I think I just need to go out there and play mistake-free football.
"I've just got to go out there, perform the offense and let the other guys make plays for me. If [Michael] Clayton's one-on-one with a guy I'm going to throw it to Clayton and let him make the play, not try to force too much. I did force one ball and almost paid for it. All in all, just go out there and run the offense and things will happen. It's a good system."
Of course, no team likes to see its starting quarterback go down, no matter how confident it is in its backup. Griese's injury, if it's serious, is a blow to the team. But, as usual, Gruden will challenge his team to look at the situation as an opportunity, and that's obviously doubly true for Simms.
Gruden said situations such as these are what makes life "exciting." Simms, while feeling bad for Griese, is almost certainly excited. This time, it doesn't appear as if he'll let the excitement overwhelm him. His head is in the right place, as was his helmet.
"I felt good," said Simms of his first work of the season. "I felt like I was seeing everything good. It felt just like practice out there."