QB Brian Griese expects the Bucs' offense to mature and become more productive as the season progresses
Brian Griese called it a "tough" day, a "sad" day.
It was Wednesday following the NFL's opening weekend, and Griese was feeling the effects of a painful loss. Days after the game in question, he still had a headache. The effects were evident in his face…and on top of his head.
Now, Griese's Tampa Bay Buccaneers actually won on Sunday, bucking the critics with an aggressive, physical 24-13 road victory at Minnesota. Griese, who threw two touchdown passes in the game, was only sacked twice, so he wasn't really as sore as he is in the middle of some weeks.
The source of Griese's pain was a Saturday game, the one in which another road underdog (Notre Dame) visited a packed, raucous stadium (Michigan Stadium) and dispatched of a glorified opponent (the Wolverines). Griese played at Michigan; teammate Sean Mahan was a Golden Domer. A friendly, non-monetary wager between the two led to this unpleasant scene for the former Wolverine: Performing his usual Wednesday meeting with the press while wearing a Notre Dame hat.
About all Griese could say about the ignoble experience was: "I'm going to take it like a man."
Griese "paid up" because he is, as he contended at the start of the press conference, a man of his word. Truth be told, he seemed to be having fun with it. Chances are he found a way to feel better about the experience by the end of the afternoon – an impromptu bonfire in the parking lot, perhaps?
On Sunday against the Vikings, Griese proved that he could he shake off a bad start to the day and finish on a positive note. His first "scoring" pass of the season ended up in the wrong end zone, as Viking safety Darren Sharper returned a red-zone interception 88 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter. However, Griese led long scoring drives on two of the Bucs' next three possessions, converting five third downs in the process and giving the Bucs a lead they would never relinquish. He completed over 60% of his passes (18-29) for the 11th time in 12 games as a Buccaneer and, most importantly, he helped his team get the win.
Griese didn't let that early interception affect the rest of his performance, and that paid off for the Buccaneers, who have needed less than a season of Griese's work to gain complete confidence in him.
"I try to put it out of my mind as soon as I can, but obviously it was a game-changing and momentum-changing play and you want to try to eliminate that," he said. "You need to get the crowd out of the game again. I try to do that by coming out and moving the team, whether it's completing the next pass, the next two passes, the next five passes. Getting a rhythm and establishing a rhythm back, and talking and communicating about that with our offensive team in the huddle. Saying, 'Look, we made a mistake, I made a mistake. Let's go back and make up for it. Let's put a drive together.' Thankfully, that's what we did."
Griese's first game last year was another victory. He actually entered that one in relief, at New Orleans on October 10. After the Bucs had dropped their first four games, quarterback Chris Simms was named the new starter, but Simms went down with a shoulder injury at the end of the first quarter. Griese came on to complete 16 of 19 passes for 194 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions, leading the Bucs to a 20-17 win.
Unfortunately, though Griese had another strong outing (27-of-40, 286 yards, two touchdowns, one interception) the following Monday in St. Louis, the Bucs lost 28-25, failing to build on their Week Five momentum. Griese performed well the rest of the way, establishing a new Buccaneer passer rating record at 97.5, but the Bucs finished 5-11 and never won two games in a row.
This year, in charge from Week One, Griese wants to see the Bucs string some wins together and build real momentum for the playoff chase. That means discarding the Minnesota game like an old Fighting Irish hat and turning his attention to the Bills and their talented defense.
"Really, outside of this locker room everybody's talking about last week, but in here we've moved on to Buffalo," said Griese. "While Minnesota was a great win, we understand that this is a very good team coming in, with a lot of talent, into our house, and we want to establish a good mojo at home, if you will. We want to start the season off at home right.
"[Consecutive wins] are big, but you've got to win the first one to be able to do that, and thankfully we were able to do that. We want to continue to build; we made a lot of mistakes last week. We want to continue to build on those things that we did well in that game, and against a great team. I think it's a great opportunity for us to come out and prove last week wasn't a fluke, to come out against a good team and put together a nice solid effort."
What's encouraging is that the Buccaneers' offense is in the perfect position to get better, not worse. Sunday's win was gained with some huge contributions from rookies, and while Cadillac Williams may not rush for 148 yards every week and Alex Smith's two-touchdowns-per-game average may shrink a bit, there is a lot of room for improvement for the young players.
"Each week, hopefully, he continues to get more and more comfortable, not just with the running game but with the passing game as well," said Griese of Williams, the rookie starter at running back. "He didn't catch any balls in that first game, but I'm looking forward to the point where he feels comfortable coming out of the backfield catching the ball and adds that dimension to his game. I'm excited about the possibilities with him and, really, he can be as good as he wants to be.
"Alex Smith, I think he has an opportunity to be a special player. It's like Cadillac, who hasn't caught a lot of balls. Alex continues to catch balls, but if he can continue to get better in his run-blocking and in the running game he's going to help us even more."
Griese also felt – or didn't feel – the contributions of rookie guard Dan Buenning. Buenning started his first NFL game at left guard, which meant he was helping protect the blind side of Griese, who took only two sacks and generally had time to throw, even when Minnesota blitzed. The Bucs also began the game by running repeatedly to the left to take advantage of the drive-blocking by Buenning and fellow young starter Anthony Davis, the left tackle.
Griese was thrilled with the performance of his revamped front line.
"I think both Anthony Davis and Dan Buenning were very aggressive on the left side," he said. "The majority of the time when we were running the ball it was to the left side of the field behind those guys. I think they did a great job of establishing the line of scrimmage. And they did a better job in pass protection than I think any of us thought they would, so that was very encouraging."
Griese has played with talented young teammates before. He thinks highly of the current crop around him, but knows they have to prove themselves over much more than one game. Buccaneer Head Coach has repeatedly said that Griese could be one of the league's great quarterbacks if the rest of the offense got better around him; it looks as if that process might be in motion.
They'll need to improve from Week One if they hope to duplicate their stats against Buffalo, which brings one of the league's best defenses into Raymond James Stadium. Griese says the Bucs are respectful of Buffalo's defensive prowess, but that they aren't planning to change their offensive approach because of it.
"They're obviously an outstanding defense; last year the way they played with reckless abandon," he said. "It's really impressive. They've got some speed at the linebacker position, they've got two guys up front who are really good at stopping the run, and two ends that can rush the passer. Their front seven is formidable. But we're going to continue to work on our game plan and continue to try to establish the line of scrimmage from our standpoint.
"Hopefully we can get a yard or two here and there."