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This season is still very much alive for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who are 9-4 and atop the NFC South division with three games remaining in the 2005 regular season.

But Tampa Bay’s playoff run shouldn’t stop anyone, including Bucs general manager Bruce Allen, from looking ahead to the offseason, where the team will have a tough decision to make regarding its quarterback position.

The Bucs will enter the offseason approximately $12 million over the NFL-mandated salary cap, and they can free up some much-needed cap space by releasing QB Brian Griese, who is rehabbing a torn ACL he suffered in Week 6 and may not be 100 percent healthy until the summer.

Griese, who turns 31 in March, is scheduled to have his cap value escalate from $1.398 million in 2005 to $7.083 million in ’06. The Bucs will likely have to make a decision on what to do with Griese by March 3, which is the tentative start date of free agency and the day Griese is scheduled to receive a $2.6 million roster bonus. Releasing Griese would give the Bucs approximately $4.55 million in cap room.

But parting ways with Griese might not be something the Bucs want to do if they can avoid it. Griese did, after all, help get Tampa Bay off to an impressive 5-1 start by completing 112-of-174 (64.4 percent) of his passes for 1,136 yards and tossing seven touchdowns. He also threw seven interceptions and was sacked 12 times through six games.

The decision on Griese’s future with Tampa Bay may not come from the Bucs’ front office. In fact, it will likely be made on the field by QB Chris Simms.

After struggling mightily in his first two starts of the season against San Francisco and Carolina, Simms has settled into the starting quarterback role by putting together a 4-3 record and leading the Bucs into first place in the NFC South division with three games remaining in regular season.

A third-year veteran, Simms has completed 129-of-212 (60.8 percent) of his passes for 1,452 yards and tossed six touchdowns and five interceptions. He’s been sacked 19 times in eight games.

While Simms’ stats rival Griese’s, the Bucs have missed Griese in at least one area – third downs. With Griese at quarterback, the Bucs converted 40-of-94 (42.5 percent) of their third down attempts. However, the Simms-led offense has converted just 34.5 percent (29-of-84) of their third down tries this season.

Of course, one could make the argument that Griese and the Tampa Bay offense benefited from the success that rookie running back Cadillac Williams had at the beginning of the year, where he rushed for 434 yards in the Bucs’ first three games. Bucs RB Michael Pittman rushed for 127 yards vs. the Miami Dolphins, which was another game the Bucs won with Griese as the starter.

The same can’t be said for Simms, who entered the starting lineup when Williams was ailing from a foot/hamstring injury. In fact, Cadillac rushed for just 49 yards in games against San Francisco and Carolina, both of which were losses.

To his credit, the former third-round draft pick out of Texas has shown improvement in each game since those two losses. Simms has done a nice job of managing the offense and avoiding costly turnovers. He’s also shown the ability to lead the Bucs to come-from-behind victories against Washington and Atlanta, both of which were games where the Bucs produced their highest point totals (36, 30) of the season.

On Sunday, Simms completed an impressive 74 percent of his passes and helped the offense convert 10-of-17 (59 percent) of its third down tries en route to Tampa Bay’s 20-10 win over Carolina, which snapped the Panthers’ five-game winning streak vs. the Bucs.

It’s not a coincidence that Simms’ play has improved as Williams has gotten healthier. In Tampa Bay’s wins over Atlanta, New Orleans and Carolina, Williams rushed for 116 yards, 96 yards and 112 yards, respectively.

After Simms’ poor showing in San Francisco, some of his teammates had their doubts about whether the third-year quarterback could lead the Bucs to the playoffs. However, Simms withstood the wave of criticism thrown his way and now has the Bucs poised to make the playoffs and possibly win their division for the first time since 2002. That feat has earned Simms some well-deserved respect.

“It’s a credit to him,” Bucs head coach Jon Gruden said of Simms’ impressive play. [Quarterbacks coach] Paul Hackett deserves credit, too. Repetitions are the mother of learning, I’ve always said. The turnovers that he did have, a couple of them were preventable on his part, and a couple of them, there’s nothing you can do when you get blindsided, when you don’t see the rush coming. I think he realizes that one of the key ingredients to winning in football is good decision making and not turning the ball over, don’t put your team in bad situations. He’s gotten into some audibles. I’ll tell you this, he’s throwing the ball great. He’s throwing the ball accurate. He had 20 completions yesterday, and four of those were dropped. The balls were laid right in there. He’s throwing the ball extremely accurate. He’s seeing the game. He has a sense of pressure, and he is a pretty athletic guy for a big guy. We are excited about what he has done and I think he knows he has work to do, but he is making progress. He’s a charismatic guy. He rallies our team. The players are responding to him. Our defense has confidence in him, so those are the things he has going for him.”

Should he lead the Bucs into the playoffs, Simms, 25, could earn himself a long-term contract in the offseason. He’s scheduled to become a restricted free agent at the end of the season. But in order to sign him to a long-term deal, the Bucs would likely have to release Griese or restructure his deal for the second straight offseason.

While Tampa Bay could opt to sign Simms to a long-term, lucrative contract, the safer bet would be for the Bucs to tender Simms a one-year contract that would cost another team compensation in the form of a draft pick(s) if they chose to offer him a long-term deal. The Bucs would also have the right to match any team’s offer.

This scenario would allow the Bucs to save cap space while buying themselves another year to evaluate Simms, whose stats (4-3 record, 80.9 quarterback rating, 6-5 TD to INT ratio) don’t warrant the Bucs signing him to a long-term, multi-million dollar deal just yet.

Tampa Bay must also safeguard itself from signing Simms to that type of deal only to find out a year later that he’s a one-year wonder. The Bucs are painfully watching wide receiver Michael Clayton suffer through a sophomore slump right now, and there’s no telling whether Simms could experience a similar situation next year, especially if the Bucs lose Hackett, who is considered one of the league’s best quarterback coaches.

Signing a one-year tender from the Bucs could be beneficial to Simms as well. He is, after all, improving with each and every snap, and just imagine where Simms might be this time next year if that trend continues. If he continues to improve into and throughout next season, Simms will eventually get what he deserves when he becomes unrestricted free agent at the end of the 2006 season.


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