QB Chris Simms had a strong first half against Carolina and is looking for even more improvement this week
When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were 3-0 at the end of September, underdog winners in two road contests and possessors of the second-ranked running attack in the NFL, it could be argued that the team's three most important offensive players were quarterback Brian Griese, running back Carnell Williams and left tackle Anthony Davis.
Williams was tearing up the league, gaining an NFL-record 434 rushing yards in the first three games of his career, and he was doing a lot of his damage behind the drive-blocking of Davis. Griese was playing off that strong running game with an efficient performance through the air, completing two-third of his passes and throwing for four touchdowns.
Now the Bucs are halfway through their season, and wide receiver Joey Galloway has emerged as perhaps the team's offensive MVP. Less kind things have befallen the trio above, as Griese is out for the season with a knee injury, Williams has been seriously side-tracked by a foot injury and Davis is facing uncertainty after injuring his knee on Sunday against Carolina.
There is no room for excuses in the NFL, though, and the Bucs know that as well as anyone. If injuries to significant performers have led to question marks, then Tampa Bay has to find the answers fast in order to stay in the cut-throat NFC South race.
Most importantly, that means finding success with Chris Simms at the helm of the offense. The Bucs are 0-2 since Griese went down and Simms became the starter but, as is usually the case, the causal relationship isn't as simple as that. The entire offense – and, at times, the defense – has struggled in losses to San Francisco and Carolina, magnifying the mistakes Simms has made and obscuring the things he has done right.
Head Coach Jon Gruden, another figure who knows the vagaries of credit and blame in the NFL, has a fairly level assessment of Simms' play so far: He's done some things well, he's made some mistakes that have to be cleaned up and he's shown definite progress from start number one to start number two.
"Blame has got to be assessed; that's just part of society," said Gruden. "The coach gets the blame and the quarterback gets the blame and we get the blame as a football team when you get defeated soundly at home like we did [against Carolina]. We haven't really shown an ability to run the football with much success in the last two football games for sure. We have to play a lot better up front as well. We dropped a few passes.
"I believe at the end of the first half [Simms] was doing quite well to be perfectly honest with you. Obviously, the interception to start the second half was a game-changing play. That must be eliminated from our play. He did make some progress. He did do some good things. Carolina is a very stingy physical difficult task for any quarterback and we realize that. We have a long way to go with Chris Simms. We have a young offensive football team that got their eyes opened yesterday. And hopefully when we get a chance to play Carolina again we'll be much better."
Next though, the Bucs must play another strong defense with the Washington Redskins coming to town. The Redskins are ranked seventh in the league on that side of the ball and are just as aggressive with the extra blitzers as Carolina. Gruden made it clear on Monday that Simms would remain his starter.
"We are going to continue to work with, Chris Simms as the starter," said the coach. "Luke McCown [will] get some reps and we'll start to get Tim [Rattay] some hands-on work because he needs it. We don't foresee any change in the quarterback rotation this Sunday at this time."
It is obvious that a return of the powerful running game that led the Bucs to their hot start would ease the transition for Simms. That's a bit of a Catch-22, though, because one of the most important thing Bucs can do to help the running game is make opponents fear the pass again. That means diagnosing blitzes and taking advantage of them, turning those high risk-reward strategies into a negative for the defense.
"Until we prove that we can recognize and take care of all the business that needs to be taken care of we're going to continue to see safety and linebacker blitzes and overload dogs repeatedly," said Gruden. "That's going around football right now. A lot of teams are getting it, a lot of teams employ that, and it certainly is a challenge."
The Bucs work very hard on that very issue every week of practice, and Simms is one of the most conscientious workers on the team. After a rough '05 starting debut in San Francisco, Simms had made obvious progress before the Carolina game. He came out sharp, and the Bucs' 17-7 deficit at halftime was more the productive of a Williams fumble and some uncharacteristic third-down struggles by the defense. The Bucs' touchdown came on one of the prettiest throws of the year, a 50-yard bomb that settled softly into Joey Galloway's hands halfway through the end zone.
Simms made one key mistake early in the second half, throwing an out that was picked off and returned for a touchdown by cornerback Chris Gamble, and then had to face an all-out pass-rush for the rest of the second half.
Still, there were plenty of encouraging moments for Simms to build on as he prepares for an even better outing against the Redskins.
"I think he's getting better," said Gruden. "I liked his first half; I believe he was 10-of-13 and made some key throws on third down. He was off to a great start in the second half. He just got jumped. He didn't see enough of what he should see. In fairness to him, North Carolina made a great play. But he's got to see that. There are certain looks, certain information that he's got to process faster. I think the more he plays the more he will."
Williams, too, should become more of a factor as his foot gets closer to 100% and his cuts became as sharp as before, though he'll need more consistent blocking to really get untracked. If Davis is out for any length of time, Todd Steussie will have to provide the same level of play at left tackle. And the offense is now in Simms' hands.
"We're not going to be able to make a lot of personnel adjustments, okay," said Gruden. "We've got some situations that are hard to deal with. I'm not going to make excuses. We've got to rally around our young quarterback."