QB Bruce Gradkowski isn't the only 2006 draftee who has impressed Head Coach Jon Gruden
Since quarterbacks are very rarely involved in the kicking game, Paul Hackett often takes his passers off to another field when punt or field goal work takes center stage during practice. Hackett, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' quarterbacks coach, will have Chris Simms and company work on drop-backs or zone reads or some other piece of quarterbacking minutiae.
Every now and then, however, Hackett skips the mini-drills and purposely shepherds the QBs to the sideline to watch Josh Bidwell at work. The message is clear, at least to rookie quarterback Bruce Gradkowski.
"He wants us to see how good Josh is," said Gradkowski. "Sometimes it's not the worst thing in the world to throw the ball away on third down and punt."
That's a lesson Gradkowski wishes he had absorbed a bit better before Saturday's game in Jacksonville, when his magical preseason hit its first speed bump. Flushed out of the pocket to his right on a third-and-three from the Jacksonville 37, Gradkowski threw back across his body to the middle of the field and was easily intercepted by linebacker Nick Griesen.
It's hard to fault Gradkowski. He's clearly a confident quarterback, and that confidence leads even the most seasoned veterans – e.g. Brett Favre – to try to make something out of nothing. There will be times, no doubt, when Gradkowski's freelance work outside of the pocket will help his offense. There will be many other times, however, when discretion will be the better part of valor.
"You have to trust our defense, make the plays that are there to be made and if nothing's there you have to be smart about it," said Gradkowski. "Just throw the ball away and take what's there."
Gradkowski threw two picks on Saturday and has also fumbled twice during the preseason, but he also tossed his fourth touchdown pass of the preseason and continued to build on his rapidly growing resume.
"The sixth-round pick is my good friend Bruce," said Head Coach Jon Gruden, who has obviously enjoyed working with the young phenom this summer, through the good times and the bad. "He has, at times, been as good as any rookie quarterback I've had, and at times he's shown that he needs to take a good look at the decisions he's making with the football and ball security. If you take away the four turnovers that he has made in the preseason, he's had a heck of a three-game performance."
Gruden discussed Gradkowski during a rapid-fire assessment of the Bucs' 2006 draft class on the eve of the first round of roster cuts. The play of Gradkowski and his eight fellow draftees (sixth-round TE T.J. Williams was hurt in June and is out for the season) has done little to make the roster decisions easier.
"I've been really pleased," said Gruden of the '06 newcomers. "[Davin] Joseph has started three games. He has had some really good days. He's had some really good days out here. He's had his eyes opened to the level of competition he's going to see every week, so we've been very impressed with him.
"[Jeremy] Trueblood has had his moments where he's been very impressive. He's making a transition to right tackle, and we're excited about that.
"[Maurice] Stovall is a physical presence. [Alan] Zemaitis has had some moments where he has struggled in this defense. The techniques are new. It's a discipline here; it's a religion the way we play defense. Like most young corners, he has struggled with it, but he's going to be a player here at some point. He just needs to address his consistency and his overall state of mind on a play-by-play basis.
"The fifth-rounder, [Julian] Jenkins, has made a splash here on special teams, and he's a guy we think has versatility to play tackle or end. Other than that, [Tim] Massaquoi and the other guys are still being evaluated, but they have competed and practiced every day, and for that, I'm really impressed."
Whatever happens on Tuesday, and during the second round of cuts over the weekend, those rookies have already learned a lot. Gradkowski has absorbed one lesson in particular.
"The NFL," he said, "is a little harder than maybe I thought."
Fiedler Impatient for More Progress
Veteran quarterback Jay Fiedler, signed by the Buccaneers in late June, remains on the active/physically unable to perform list and is not expected to play in Thursday's preseason finale. At the time he joined the Buccaneers, exactly four weeks before the reporting date for training camp, Fiedler felt as if his rehabilitation from shoulder surgery was on the fast track.
Now, with the regular season looming, the former Miami Dolphins starter is aggravated by the pace of his progress.
"Yeah, it's definitely frustrating being out here watching and not being able to participate," said Fiedler, who has yet to be cleared to practice. "I'm a competitive guy. I want to be out there, I want to be running around, I want to be playing. Unfortunately, the arm's not allowing me to do that yet, but I'm doing what I can to make sure I can get back out on the field as soon as possible."
Fiedler still hopes he can be available to play when the regular season begins, and he believes he is solid enough on the Bucs' defense to be able to contribute immediately.
"It's coming around," he said. "Hopefully things will turn the corner pretty soon for me. I'm still not where I need to be and hopefully that will come soon. It's just a matter of what the arm's allowing me to do. I'm pushing through it, trying to do as much as I can, but unfortunately the arm's holding me back a little bit.
"I know the offense well enough to function. Obviously, to be successful at it, it would help to get more reps and get some timing down and get a feel for everybody out there. But as far as knowing the offense, I'm ready to go out there right now. Mentally, I'm caught up to where I need to be."
Despite his desire to return, Fiedler isn't ready to assume he'll be ready for opening day.
"I'm not going to make any predictions on that," he said. "When the time comes, the team will make a decision and I'll be there doing what I can do and helping the team in whatever role I'm asked to do."
Gruden was asked on Monday if the team is working on an apparent problem of Chris Simms' passes being batted down by defensive linemen at the line of scrimmage. The Jaguars knocked down three of Simms' throws before they could get past the line on Saturday.
"Oh, we're going to be working on it every day, just as we always did," said Gruden, who also noted that the 6-7 Henderson, who got two of the knockdowns, is particularly difficult to throw over. "Chris can come out and say publicly that it's his fault, but it's not all his fault. We've got to be more aggressive in our quick pass protections, and we've got to get people's hands down. We've got to sense passing lanes, certainly, and we've got to be more aggressive in our pass protections trying to create passing lanes."
Like any team, the Bucs sometimes throw out of three-step drops, which put the quarterback closer to the line when he releases the ball. However, Gruden said that the team has had balls batted down on a variety of plays, not just three-step drops. Simply taking the quick drops out of the playbook won't solve the issue, but Gruden isn't particularly worried that it will linger.
"We've had five-step drops batted down," he said. "We've had seven-step drops batted down. We've got to do a better job not telegraphing our throwing motion, we've got to do a better job of being aggressive, tying people up and getting their hands down. That's a negative right now. It's not a situation that we're going to be basket cases about. We'll overcome it, and we'll just have to prove that hopefully Thursday night."