QB Tim Rattay feels for his younger teammate, Luke McCown, having gone through a similar situation
Based on an ephemeral depth chart carried over from the end of the 2005 season and the hoary "you're-one-play-away-from-the-fire" maxim for second-stringers, Tim Rattay's 2006 just got more interesting.
Tuesday's announcement that knee surgery awaits Luke McCown, the primary backup to Chris Simms at the end of '05, led most observers to mentally slide Rattay into that number-two spot. The former starter in San Francisco is the obvious choice, as his two fellow Buc reserves, Bruce Gradkowski and Jared Allen, have never even appeared on a regular-season roster.
That's a significant position. The primary QB backup may not figure much into the game plan on opening weekend, but he rarely makes it through a 16-game season without becoming a factor. Of course, if the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' recent seasons are any guide, Rattay was already an important part of the equation for 2006, regardless of McCown's offseason injury.
In three of the Bucs' last seven seasons, the team has used three different starting quarterbacks. The man who started the season as the inactive third quarterback eventually took over the offense in 1999 (Shaun King), 2002 (Rob Johnson) and 2004 (Brian Griese). When Griese himself went down last October, Simms moved successfully into the starting role, but McCown was just an awkward tackle away from being the starter for a playoff-bound team.
"We play three [quarterbacks] it seems like every year," said Bucs Head Coach Jon Gruden. "We're hoping Chris Simms has a long run here and stays healthy, like a lot of the guys who are well-known in this league. But our job is to try to find as many good quarterbacks as we can and try to get as many as we can ready to play."
It should also be reiterated that this entire discussion is based on the end of last season, when McCown was the primary backup to Simms and Rattay, a midseason trade acquisition, was in the third spot. Given that there is no official depth chart for 2006 at this point and Rattay intended to battle for a larger role anyway, perhaps Rattay's situation didn't really change that much with Tuesday's news.
That's certainly Rattay's take on the situation.
"When I came in this offseason, I knew things were going to shuffle around and people were going to take different reps," he said. "We've got a long way until the first game, so I wasn't too concerned about where people were at and all that kind of stuff. I'm just going to go in there and just work, and as soon as I get reps take advantage of them and try to learn the offense as much as I can."
Other than McCown himself, not many Bucs feel worse about the young passer's injury than Rattay, who has been through a similar situation. In May of 2004, Rattay rolled out to pass and, without sustaining any contact, suffered a serious tear of a groin muscle. He ended up playing in only nine games that season, all starts.
Last year, after McCown was picked up in a draft-weekend trade and Rattay came aboard following Griese's injury, the two former Louisiana Tech standouts became close, often engaging in one-on-one passing games towards the end of practices. Ratty certainly didn't want McCown out of the picture this summer; in fact, he was looking forward to the competition.
"Ever since I've been in the league, guys have always been brought in, and that's the way you get better," said Rattay. "I love competition. I've been in a competition for my job every year I've been in the league and I enjoy that. And that's how it should be. Guys rise above when there's competition and you don't want to get set in your ways. It's always good to have competition. I enjoy it and I'm looking forward to it."
Obviously, both McCown and Rattay had to learn the Bucs' offense on the fly – particularly Rattay – after coming over in trades. As is generally the case, the two passers felt much more comfortable in Gruden's offense after enjoying a full offseason of training in Tampa. Rattay, a 49er from 2000 through the midway point of 2005, is finally at the point where the system comes to him naturally.
"I just get in the huddle, call the play and go," he said. "I don't have to worry about where guys are. I can worry about what the defense is doing and all that kind of stuff. It's really coming, and I feel good about where it's at. I can't wait for the games to kick off."
Gruden, who always pays special attention to his stable of quarterbacks during the offseason, agrees with Rattay's self-assessment.
"He's able to get in and out of the huddle and call plays and run the offense," said the demanding coach. "He's a guy who we're going to lean on here, obviously, [due to] his experience. He's probably the most experienced quarterback we have. I've seen improvements in him, yes."
Rattay has played in 32 NFL games and started 16, totals that exceed even those of Simms. He has overcome long odds before. Last summer, despite the 49ers' decision to draft Utah's Alex Smith first overall, and the common belief that Smith would have the starting job by the beginning of 2005, Rattay was at the helm on opening day. Like any true NFL competitor, he believes he should be starting again.
McCown's injury may or may not push Rattay closer to that goal. As far as the former 49er is concerned, however, it didn't change his situation at all.
"I was going into this thing just trying to play as well as I could and things would shuffle out in the end," said Rattay. "We have a long way until the first game, so I'm just going to keep coming out and playing and whatever reps I've got, take advantage of them. I'm just going to do the same thing."