There isn't a throw QB Chris Simms can make in camp that compares to firing one off with Julius Peppers breathing down your neck
Technically, Chris Simms' lot in life is no different at the end of July, 2006, than it was nine months ago, in October 2005. Well, that's not completely true…in June, Simms became a first-time father with the birth of daughter Sienna Rose.
But then, as now, Simms was the undisputed starting quarterback of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. If anything has changed in that regard, it is merely that his hold has become stronger on the job, thanks to a strong finish to the 2005 season and another marvelous offseason, which is proving to be his modus operandi.
So Simms has had three-quarters of a year to get used to his current job, and beyond that, he's spent a lifetime dreaming about it. One day in late July shouldn't feel any different than a Sunday in December or a mini-camp in May.
Oh, but it does.
For the first time, Simms is going to be an opening-day starter. For the first time, he's on the top of the depth chart, no questions asked, as training camp begins. And training camp began on Friday. Simms didn't try to downplay the importance.
"You know it's always where I envisioned myself being," he said after the Bucs' second practice of the day. "At the same time it's a dream come true just to go into the season knowing you're the starter. I'm extremely excited
"There are not too many people in the world right now that can say they are a starting quarterback for an NFL team. It's something I thought about since I was a little kid. To finally – I told a lot of people this – to start the summer training that we have and go into the season full-steam ahead, that's what I'm really most excited about. Last year, I basically had to do scout-team reps the first six weeks and then go in and play. You lose your timing and rhythm with the offense [that way], so I look forward to hitting it full-steam ahead."
The Bucs are excited, too. Head Coach Jon Gruden has praised his quarterback repeatedly this spring and summer, paying special attention to Simms' unflagging work ethic. Of course, now that camp has begun, jobs are on the line and the steady improvement of the team's starting quarterback is crucial, Gruden is likely to dial down the praise and focus on the work ahead.
"I think Chris is going to be a fine quarterback, I really do," said Gruden on Friday. "If we can coach good enough, he's going to be just fine."
Simms doesn't need or seek out overflowing praise from his head coach, and despite his youth he has proven to be remarkably even-keeled about the noise that surrounds an NFL quarterback. Gruden and Simms speak the no-nonsense language of football to each other, and the player can easily tell what he is doing right and wrong. Every day, there's more of the former and less of the latter.
"He's always going to yell, at the quarterbacks especially," said Simms of Gruden. "But I think at the end of the day, Coach has – or at least I feel that he has – a little more confidence me than years past just because I have gone out on the field and proven that I can manage the offense, move the ball down the field, and win in some tight situations. So he definitely treats me a little bit different, and that's good. It means I'm doing something right."
Simms' second half made a lot of people feel more comfortable with his work. As he mentioned, he made the plays that needed to be made at critical points in several tight wins. He also proved more adept at the deep ball than any Buc passer in awhile, opening up a whole new round of possibilities in the Bucs' playbook. And, perhaps most important of all, Simms gave himself the confidence that comes with experience.
"This point last year compared to where I am right now, there's no comparisons," he said. "I don't think you can truly learn and be comfortable until you get the on-field playing experience. You can practice all you want and practice all the different looks, but it's a lot different when you get out there. Julius Peppers is standing five feet from the right of you breathing down your neck or you've got guys like LaVar Arrington and Sean Taylor bluffing a blitz one way, and all of a sudden it comes the other way…those are the learning experiences. There's no way to learn. There's something about throwing an interception in practice compared to throwing an interception in front of 70,000 people that just makes it stick in your head that much more."
Brooks Has Confidence in Offense
Derrick Brooks looks across the line of scrimmage and sees 1995 all over again.
A little bit of 1996, too. And '97, '98 and '99, too.
It's a welcome sight. The Buccaneers, long a team carried by its otherworldly defense, appear to be in the early stages of building an offense that will be good for quite some time. Brooks got in on the ground floor when the same thing was accomplished on defense – some might say he is that ground floor, the foundation – and he now sees the possibility of a very successful combination.
"The way that we're building the offense now is the way that the defense was built when I got here," said the 12th-year veteran, who has never missed a game since arriving in 1995. "We drafted myself, Warren [Sapp], Ronde [Barber], Brian [Kelly] and now we are starting to do that on offense. You know with [Michael] Clayton, Chris [Simms], Cadillac [Williams], the offensive linemen, Alex Smith, you see a lot of similarities. The difference is now we are the veteran defense and I think if we keep us together on D, you're going to give us a chance to win on offense. These guys are making plays.
"I like the direction we're going. That was a big reason why I decided to restructure my contract and stay here. I like what we're building."
Brooks' restructuring in the offseason allowed his Hall of Fame-worthy career to continue in the same place and also gave the team extra room to keep other key contributors around. The Bucs feel very good about their current combination of a proven veteran core, much of it on defense, and some truly exciting young players on offense. Veterans like Brooks are invaluable in developing the next wave of team leaders. Clayton said as much on Friday, acknowledging the influence Brooks has had on his behavior on and off the field.
"I'm just here for them, whatever they need," said Brooks. "I don't go around and pull them aside, force conversation. I really try to show them how I go about my business every day. How to do things the Buccaneer way, and to be a pro at it."
Of course, the flip side of the focus on the Bucs' offensive youth is the sometimes distracting questions about the defense's advancing age. This unit tends to be written off every summer, as observers see the age totals tick up another year and assume the wall is near. Such talk rolls right off Brooks. Buc defenders don't think of themselves as the aging older brothers to a bunch of up-and-coming stars. They think of themselves as the perfect complement to an emerging offense.
"It's whether you made the play or not," said Brooks. "Period. Whether you're 20, did you make the play? Whether you're 40, did you make the play? That's what it's all about, this league, in my opinion, I think too much is put on that to be honest with you. I know tonight I dropped a pick in practice; [Monte Kiffin] will probably be all over me. That has nothing to do with age; I didn't make the play. To me, that's what it boils down to: Did you or did you not make the play?"
The Bucs think they are ready to make plays on both sides of the ball this year.
More from Coach Gruden
The Bucs' coach touched on a number of other topics after the team's first training camp practice on Friday morning.
On Joey Galloway looking good in the first practice: "He's a really good player. You know, he had arguably one of the great seasons in Buccaneer history as a wideout last year, so we expect more from him. We're going to try to get a lot more out of him this year, and if today is any indication he's pretty doggone good."
On what Cadillac Williams can do to top his 2005 season: "Well, he can stay healthy and go wire-to-wire for 16 games. That's what Emmitt Smith did. That's what the great backs in this league do. I think he understands that. He had an unfortunate injury. We sent him out to the foot specialists to get the best shoes he can find. We'd like to get him more involved, honestly, in the passing game. We'll try to just get him the ball a little bit more than we did a year ago."
On if the team's continuity from 2005 makes it easier to get rolling in camp: "We have guys who know the system, know how we're practicing, know what to expect, know what we want. But we do have some jobs that are being competed for very, very hard. We haven't solved anything, really, at some positions. We've got a long way to go to decide who will start, but we do like the nucleus of players that we have returning for a change. It's quite nice indeed."
On if he wants to pinpoint the positions that are up for grabs: "No, not really. We have some competition on the offensive line. We have competition all over the place. We'll see what happens."
On Bruce Gradkowski: "I think Bruce is going to be a good player. What he did today, he took 35% of the reps, we put him in some difficult situations. He had to call some wordy plays and make a couple audibles at the line of scrimmage. He moves around good, as you can see, and he throws a nice ball. He's got a real good pizzazz about him that our players like. I think they're going to play hard for him."
On if Gradkowski has a chance to earn the #2 spot on the depth chart: "He has a chance, yeah. I mean, Tom Brady did alright in the sixth round. I hope he can become a great player. I'm optimistic. We look at the back of his stat card at Toledo and no one completed a higher percentage of passes than Bruce Gradkowski on the college level ever. He's a 70% [passer], he's a pinpoint passer, he's good with the football and he does have mobility that helps us. We're looking for a quarterback who can put it down and create a first down or two with his legs."
On if he likes Gradkowski's cadence on calls: "He's going to be a good player. Where he is now is a credit to him and Paul Hackett. He's come a long way in three months, a lot further than a lot of young quarterbacks I've worked with. I'm really excited about him. I don't want to jinx it. It's going to get a lot harder in the coming days, that's for sure."
On the heat: "It's hot. I'll tell you, it's been very hot in Florida here the last 10 days. Hopefully it's this hot when Baltimore shows up."