WR Joey Galloway (right) and the Bucs' other passcatchers have to get used to Bruce Gradkowski's style
At first, the difference is audible.
The cadence is slightly altered – its rhythm a different pace, its tone more guttural. Then the difference is visual. His drop-back morphs into a rollout, and the football is delivered from the right hand, not the left. This is the quarterback position as played by rookie sixth-rounder Bruce Gradkowski, and it's a style to which his Tampa Bay Buccaneers teammates have begun the process of acclimating themselves.
This familiarization period is a result of Gradkowski being named the Bucs' starter Monday in response to the indefinite loss of starting quarterback Chris Simms, who Sunday underwent surgery for a ruptured spleen.
And the offense under Gradkowski, not Simms?
"Well, you know what – it will change," said Head Coach Jon Gruden. "The quarterback changes your offense. Unfortunately, this will be the sixth quarterback we've started in just over four years. It changes. And nothing is ever the same when you change quarterbacks."
The physical differences between Simms and Gradkowski are obvious; not only is Gradkowski right-handed, as mentioned, but he's three inches shorter than Simms. The differences don't end there. Simms is more of a classic drop-back pocket passer while Gradkowski is more mobile than most. Gradkowski is no Michael Vick – who is? – but he's got the mobility to move around in the pocket and buy himself some extra time, and he's not afraid to tuck the ball and take off for the marker.
"Any time you have a quarterback who is mobile, it adds another dimension to the offense," said tight end Alex Smith, a man who, at 6-4, 258 pounds, figures to serve as a nice target for the rookie quarterback. "They can keep the play going. You have to keep your eyes open because he can scramble and still be looking downfield. You have to stay ready for him because he'll try to make a play any way he can."
Wide receiver Michael Clayton agrees.
"You always have to stay alive with a guy who can move in the pocket," said Clayton. "He's probably able to see a late option coming across the middle. As far as wide receivers go, that alerts us to stay alive on our routes because he can definitely keep the play going."
In addition to adapting to Gradkowski's mobility, Buccaneers receivers are getting a feel for the type of ball their new quarterback delivers. Each play during practice is an opportunity to adjust to the angle at which the ball arrives, its spin and a host of other understated idiosyncrasies present in a quarterback's delivery.
"It definitely takes some getting adjusted to," Smith said. "Each quarterback has his own way of throwing the ball – little things like the way he puts spin on the ball can really change the way you catch the ball. It's just a matter of getting your timing down. He has to get used to us. He hasn't been out there as much as Chris has, just considering the reps. You definitely have to get your timing down with him. You get through practice and even get a little extra with him afterwards."
That's exactly what Clayton is doing, taking advantage of opportunities between and after drills to work on getting in sync with Gradkowski. The extra work is something he believes will help Gradkowski's transition by allowing the Buccaneers' offense to continue without missing a beat.
"It's going to take some hard work," Clayton said. "[Bruce] has a little bit different ball than Chris. He has not as much velocity as Chris, but his [pass] comes out a little quicker – just getting used to that. It's going to take some hard work, but we'll get it and won't have any problems getting used to that."
Then there's the mental aspect associated with the Buccaneers' quarterback change. Playing with a rookie quarterback – even one who confidently embraces the role – means accepting that the inexperienced quarterback will make some mistakes, miss some reads and sometimes be outright befuddled by the looks opposing defenses give him.
It's all part of a steep learning curve, but Buccaneers receivers believe Gradkowski has what it takes to be a successful signal caller in the NFL.
"A lot of people expect us to tone down the playbook and be a lot more conservative, but I don't think we're going to take that approach," Smith said. "Bruce demonstrated what he could do this preseason, and I think he's comfortable with the offense. I think we're going to try and not even break stride with him in."
More succinct and ever-to-the-point, Clayton said, "He looks good; he looks darn good."
More importantly, Gradkowski's coach believes he has what it takes.
"We think he's a good player," Gruden said. "It's up to him now to put his own spin on the position and play at a level that helps us win games. I thought his first day was pretty good. We had the crowd noise going. We showed him some tough looks. We asked him to do some difficult things, and he was able to do a pretty good job."
Most importantly, Gradkowski believes in himself.
"I definitely feel like I'm ready," he said. "I know Coach Gruden wouldn't have thrown me out there if he didn't think I was ready. I've been preparing for this. Coach didn't bring me in here to be a clipboard holder my whole career. This just came a little faster than expected, but I'm going to work hard. I'm going to make this happen."