Jay Fiedler almost saw the Jets' starting job come his way in 2005, only to suffer an ill-timed injury
For the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Jay Fiedler, and the mutually beneficial hook-up they made on Thursday, it was better late than never.
In more ways than one.
Fiedler's signing comes very late in the free agency period, at a time when there isn't usually much on the waiver wire to get teams excited. Think of it this way: The Bucs' most significant late-June/July signings of Jon Gruden's first four years in Tampa were probably Bill Schroeder (2004), Terrell Buckley (2002) and Lomas Brown (2002). Schroeder played a lot early but was released at midseason, Buckley didn't make the team and Brown earned a Super Bowl ring but never really played.
"It is very unusual at this time of year to be able to pick up a player of Jay's caliber," said General Manager Bruce Allen. "He's in the top ten of active quarterbacks in winning percentage. We think that he will add to the group of quarterbacks that we already have in place and feel he will be a good addition because of signing now. Because he is going to use the next few weeks to learn our offense so when he is able to go on the field, he will be able to participate full speed ahead mentally and physically."
Fiedler's signing also comes more than a year after it was first tossed around at One Buc Place. After his fifth season in Miami, Fiedler became an unrestricted free agent in the spring of 2005 and was wooed by the Buccaneers, among other teams. The native New Yorker eventually chose a homecoming with the Jets, and the Bucs moved on by trading first for Luke McCown and then for Tim Rattay.
But thanks to a not altogether painless set of circumstances, the Bucs and Fiedler are together, better late than never. Fiedler still feels as if he made the right decision a year ago, and indeed he could have been the Jets starter for the balance of the season if he hadn't hurt his throwing shoulder six plays after Chad Pennington hurt his. Meanwhile, McCown developed nicely over the next 14 months with the Buccaneers and would have had an excellent shot to follow starter Chris Simms on the depth chart this year, but he suffered a knee injury in practice several weeks ago and is out until at least midseason.
The Jets, not needing two veterans with rebuilding shoulders, released Fiedler and the Bucs, prompted by McCown's prognosis, came calling one more time. Once again, they had competition from other teams, but this time Fiedler felt like Tampa was his best option.
"For one thing, Tampa Bay was excited about having me in here," he said. "You could sense that by the visits that I took down here and by the enthusiasm that the coaches and the staff around here had in bringing me in. I've been around a long time and I know my experience can help around here and I know what kind of competitor I am. This is a team that I feel has the pieces to do some special things this year."
Like any good NFL quarterback, Fiedler believes he can be the starter and intends to work hard towards that goal. He joined a team with an established starter last year and almost ended up with the reins in Week Three. Obviously, the Bucs hope Simms stays healthy and productive all year, and Fiedler certainly wishes him no ill. But that won't affect the veteran's approach to his new situation.
"I'm a competitor," he explained. "I'm going to come in and compete and the coaches are going to make decisions on where the quarterbacks place on the depth chart. That's nothing that I worry about. The way I go about practice, the way I go about my preparation, doesn't depend on where they slot me in on the depth chart. I'm going to go out there and I'm going to compete and I'm going to work with these guys as well. [I'm going to] do my best to help these guys with the experience that I've had in the league and help them see things a little bit better. Hopefully, they'll help me get up to speed with the offense early on in camp as well."
Fiedler's reunion with Gruden was a long time in the making, as well. The two first worked together in 1995, when the quarterback was a little known reserve out of Dartmouth and Gruden was in his first season as an NFL coordinator. Though Fiedler wouldn't see any meaningful NFL snaps until 1999, with Jacksonville, that first season at Gruden's side was career-altering.
"The year that I spent in Philadelphia under Coach Gruden was probably the biggest leap I made in knowledge of the game," said Fiedler. "It was my second year out of college. My rookie year I was just getting into the NFL, and then Coach Gruden came in as the coordinator and was just light years ahead of where I had been before, in learning the game, learning the quarterback position, learning how receivers run routes, how to dissect defenses, how to prepare. That was really my first involvement with a coach who really gets in-depth into offensive football and philosophies and studies the game as hard as he does."
Fiedler eventually became a starter in Miami in 2000 and Gruden went on to be head coach in Oakland and, beginning in 2002, Tampa. Gruden has worked with Ty Detmer, Rodney Peete, Rich Gannon, Brad Johnson, Brian Griese and Simms, among others. Fiedler ran across such OCs as Bruce Coslet, Brian Billick, Norv Turner, Chan Gailey and Mike Heimerdinger, among others. In 1995, Gruden and the Eagles kept Fiedler around for the whole season as the third quarterback, allowing for that learning process that Fiedler cites above. Now the two have a chance to work together again. Yeah, better late than never.
"I'm sure he's done a lot of different things and gotten better as a coach, just as I've gotten better as a player since the last time we were together," said Fiedler. "It's an opportunity to work with him again and be in a versatile offense with a lot of options where the quarterback really has a lot of input into what goes on offensively. The more I'm able to handle, the more he's going to throw at me. I'm excited about that."
There is no time to wait, however, when it comes to Fiedler's preparations for next month's training camp. He picked up a playbook while he was in Tampa on Thursday and spent several hours absorbing Gruden's thoughts during the afternoon. Most of the coaches will be on vacation in the coming weeks, but Fiedler plans to return 10 or 11 days before the opening of camp to get a crash course with Gruden and his assistants.
"I've always been a fast learner," said Fiedler. "I was in this system years ago. Obviously, it's changed and adapted a little bit since then, but a lot of the terminology, the basic terminology, has stayed the same. There have already been some pretty good recall on that."
As for his surgically-repaired right shoulder, Fiedler is working hard to have that ready by the beginning of camp, too. He's been throwing for about a month and says he feels better every time he steps on the field. Even if the specific goal of being full-go on the first day of camp isn't reached, the Bucs aren't concerned about waiting an extra day or two.
"Training camp starts in about a month or so, so it's around that time," said Allen of Fiedler's anticipated return to the practice field. "If it takes a few extra days, once again, this isn't a young player who has to get reps to prove something to us. There's a lot of film on Jay and a lot of successful film that shows the type of player he is."