QB Luke McCown got a few more reps than usual Saturday morning and tried to make all of them count
It was Luke McCown Day at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' training camp on Saturday, at least in the morning. By afternoon, it may switch to Chris Simms Day.
Two days into their three-week camp, the Buccaneers are working hard to juggle a four-man quarterback rotation that hardly has enough reps to go around. Due to a variety of factors, the Bucs' coaching staff feels it is important to get each of those four men as much work as possible.
As Head Coach Jon Gruden put it on Saturday, between the showcases for McCown and Simms: "The quarterback rotation will be unique throughout this training camp."
Contrast this year's camp to last summer.
In 2006, the Bucs had settled on Chris Simms, a returning player and part-time starter the year before, as their man. He was due to get extensive time under center in order to get ready for the regular season. In addition, the coaches were determined to see what they had in sixth-rookie Bruce Gradkowski, so he got a longer look, leading to fewer snaps for veteran Tim Rattay. All part of the plan.
The Bucs have a designated starter heading into camp again this year, but Jeff Garcia is new to the team and thus needs as much work as possible to digest the offense. Simms, too, needs reps in order to continue his recovery from last year's spleen injury and prove that he is both a viable number two and a threat to reclaim his job. And the team has to see as much as possible from McCown and last year's primary starter, Bruce Gradkowski, to determine which is the likely number three and whether either one can push for the second spot.
The coaching staff needs answers, and each of the four passers needs time to provide them, one way or the other.
"I have a lot of confidence in these guys but that doesn't guarantee that you're going to win," said Gruden. "I want to see it out here for three weeks in training camp. I want Garcia to really assert himself. He makes four or five plays a day that we haven't had out here – instinctive, scramble plays; sidearm throws. I want Chris Simms to come back. He's going to get a lot of reps this afternoon. I want McCown and Gradkowski to compete. One of those young guys has to clearly step up."
So the snap percentage ebbs and flows between the four passers, with some practices being used to take a longer look at one player or the other. On Saturday morning, McCown got some extra work; essentially it was his first extended training camp practice in two years. McCown missed camp and much of the '06 season after suffering a practice-field knee injury last June.
"Luke missed last season," said Gruden. "He was injured, and when he did come back he was very limited. As you can see, he has athletic ability, can throw the ball. Luke is a guy that has earned the reps and he took advantage of some of them today. Some of them he has to learn from, but I thought he did some good things."
McCown may have had the throw of the day…or at least the morning. During a seven-on-seven drill, he spied wide receiver David Boston splitting the defense deep downfield and hit him in stride with a very deep pass. He is determined to seize the opportunity that he didn't have a year ago.
"It's a competition, and that brings out the best in everybody," said McCown. "That's the nature of this business – you're always competing. Obviously, Jeff has been named the starter but that doesn't stop us from competing for the starting job. That's the way we work, that's the mindset we take every day."
McCown, a man of strong faith, believes it may have been part of God's plan to push him to the sideline for a while with the injury. He used the time away from the field to dive headfirst into the playbook and make his mental grasp on Gruden's offense much stronger. In turn, that has helped him take control on the field now that he's back in the mix. That's not just his opinion; Gruden has noticed the strides McCown has made.
"Luke's a little different, a quiet, reserved kind of guy," said the Bucs' coach. "A great guy, smart guy. He's listening, listening, listening, taking the mental reps and I think his personality on the field is going to surface the more he plays. Let's give the guy a chance; none of us have seen him for over a year. You see a six-three-and-a-half guy that can run and throw, and he is tough and he is a football player. We'll address that as time goes on, but I don't really know Luke as well as I'd like to. Until you go to war with a guy in a football game, you really don't know someone."
Until then, Gruden and his staff will learn all they can from practice, and allow the competition to boil by featuring one quarterback or another on any given morning or afternoon. For Saturday's nightcap, it will be Simms' turn.
"You'll see a lot of Chris Simms this afternoon," confirmed Gruden, "and you'll see a lot less of somebody else."
The Buccaneers have made their first roster move since the start of camp practices; fortunately for those men who first took the field on Friday morning, it is just an addition.
Tampa Bay had two open roster spots to fill as of Saturday morning and has used one to bring back rookie defensive tackle Justin Frick.
The Bucs first signed the undrafted free agent on March 3. A North Dakota State project, Frick made a good impression on Defensive Coordinator Monte Kiffin during spring practices and mini-camps but was waived on June 21 to make room on the roster for just-signed draft pick Kenneth Darby.
Frick appeared in 38 games with 22 career starts at NDSU, finishing his collegiate career with 131 tackles, 10 sacks, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and nine passes defensed. The 6-3, 295-pound plugger started all 12 games for the Bison last season and finished with 39 tackles and five sacks.
The Bucs' one remaining roster vacancy was earned as an NFL Europa exemption and must be used on a player who participated in the most recent NFLEL season.
For a few very obvious reasons – most notably a desire to keep every player on the roster equally motivated – Head Coach Jon Gruden only infrequently singles out individual players for extensive praise during training camp. After Saturday's practice, however, Gruden did volunteer the names of a few men who have caught his eye through a day and a half of field work.
"David Boston has showed up and [Maurice] Stovall is really flashing," said Gruden. "Those two skill guys offensively have done a great job the first three days. Phillip Buchanon looks good – quick, active out on the outside. I thought Tanard Jackson made a couple great plays today also."
Boston and Stovall are intriguing figures in an unsettled receiving corps that, according to leader Joey Galloway, is among the most talented he's been a part of. Still, both have a lot to prove. Boston is still trying to recapture his Pro Bowl form of the turn of the century after roughly three seasons of inactivity due to a knee injury. Stovall came on strong in his rookie season last year but is still green.
The story is similar on the other side of the ball. Buchanon, a former first-round pick and likely the Bucs' third corner this season, began to re-establish himself late last year with Tampa Bay after a disappointing stint in Houston. Jackson is a rookie fourth-rounder who is making the transition to safety from his college position of cornerback.
All four have obviously caught Gruden's eye but Stovall's strong practices have been evident to everyone in attendance, thanks to a handful of impressive catches. Gruden said the second-year receiver's strong opening this summer is the result of months of labor.
"He's done nothing but work," said Gruden. "It's the legendary Michael Irvin-Jerry Rice work ethic. I'm not comparing him to those guys, but from a work-ethic standpoint this guy's insane. He is a great worker. He's faster, he's much more in shape than he's ever been and he can move for a big guy. It's a credit to him and what he's all about. He's going to make things real interesting."