QB Bruce Gradkowski made several big plays with his legs but might have left a few passing yards out there for the taking
It's hard to envision a better start to a career than the one scripted by Tampa Bay Buccaneers rookie quarterback Bruce Gradkowski over the last 10 days. In that span he has finished one game, his professional starting debut, with a 107.6 passer rating and the other with a game-winning, fourth-down touchdown pass with 35 seconds to play.
Obviously, Gradkowski has in the process pleased his head coach, Jon Gruden, who enjoys nothing in his profession more than helping a quarterback develop his game.
However, as pleased as he is, Gruden also believes Gradkowski can be even better – soon – and in the process make the Buccaneers' offense truly explosive.
"I am not going to say too much about him publicly," Gruden said a day after the Buccaneers' first victory of the season. "I don't want him to get the big head, you know what I mean? He did a good job, he missed some plays that he's got to hit for us to really explode offensively."
The truth is, Gruden did say quite a bit about Gradkowski on Monday, mostly because that was a favorite topic of the questioners in the press conference audience, but also because it was hard to help himself.
"He's a tough guy, he's a very tough guy," continued Gruden. "Mentally tough, not just physically tough, though he is physically tough. People yelling at him, screaming at him, doesn't bother him. A high throw, a missed opportunity doesn't put him in the tank. He shows great resolve and it's a key component I think you have to have to turn the corner someday in this league."
Gradkowski at least peeked around that corner on Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals. Trailing by six points and limited much of the game by the Bengals defense, Gradkowski and the Buccaneers offense took over at their 46-yard line with 4:21 remaining in the game. By now Buccaneers faithful know the drive culminated in a Gradkowski's touchdown pass to Michael Clayton from the eight-yard line. What might have been lost were Gradkowski's numbers on that all-important drive: 6-for-8 for 57 yards and a touchdown. Along the way, Gradkowski found four different receivers and overcame a third-and-13 scenario that was the result of a tripping penalty that erased a potential first-and-goal situation. In total, Gradkowski was nine for 14 for 80 yards and one score in the fourth quarter Sunday. That equates to a 103.4 passer rating with the game on the line – the definition of clutch.
Still, the Buccaneers would not have been in that high-pressure situation and at the mercy of NFL referees – the game-winning toss was originally ruled incomplete before a replay review overturned that ruling – had the team been able to move the ball more effectively earlier in the game. Gruden knows this, and Gradkowski's 25-for-44 passing day meant he missed a few throws he's used to making, particularly during a nine-for-20 first half. Gradkowski's 56.8 completion percentage is a far cry from the mid-60 to 70 percent mark to which he became accustomed as one of the most accurate passers in NCAA history.
"He sailed a few," Gruden said. "I think when we introduced him last [before the game], he got excited and he was sailing a little bit. He'll tell you he saw some open targets, maybe got a little bit excited, and the ball flew on him a little bit. For the most part he knew where he was going with the ball. His decisions were good, he just got a little wild at times. But, he settled down when he had to.
"We left a lot out there, in my opinion. We missed some open receivers. We had some penalties to disrupt drives. But the effort was good. Michael Clayton played a good football game. I thought our young offensive linemen came off the ball quite well against a good defensive team. There was some good execution; there were just some penalties, some missed opportunities, that made it really tough on us."
And though he missed some targets throughout the game, the Buccaneers never lost faith in Gradkowski, asking him to air it out 44 times – 14 in the fourth quarter. That type of play calling wasn't only a product of trailing late in the game, it was a testament to the level of comfort the Buccaneers have with their rookie signal-caller. Part of that comfort, Gruden acknowledged, comes from Gradkowski's lack of mistakes with regard to turnovers as well as his mobility – an asset he relied on at various times in the game to dodge the pass rush as well as run for the marker when he failed to find open receivers.
"That was a downfall for us in the first few games – the interceptions, the batted passes and the sacks – in terms of our offense," Gruden said. "He's given us an added life, I think, with the scrambling ability and he has been very careful with the ball. I know [Quarterbacks Coach] Paul Hackett points that out to him minute by minute, and it's a credit to Coach Hackett and Bruce for doing a good job in that regard so far."
As comfortable as Gruden is with Gradkowski, he says the team must work to achieve a better pass-to-run ratio so that Gradkowski does not have to air it out 40-plus times a game.
"We'd like to have a little bit better balance but we got behind in the down-and-distance on several occasions," Gruden said. "We felt throwing the ball was the thing to do towards the end of the football game. We felt we had some good things that we could exploit and do. We would have liked to have had more yards. I think when Bruce sees the tape he'll see some things he may have done better. But I'll give him credit. He was tremendous down the stretch when we needed him."