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IN THE MARKET FOR A QUARTERBACK
Are the rumors and reports true that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are interested in re-signing quarterback Chris Simms, who is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent in March of 2007?

Of course they are. The Bucs have always been interested in re-signing the 26-year-old signal caller, but only if the price is right.

Sure, the Bucs have $25-plus million to spend in free agency next year, but they’re not prepared or willing to write Simms a blank check.

In fact, they’re interested in bringing Simms back to further evaluate him. The evaluation process abruptly ended after Week 3 when Simms had to undergo emergency surgery to remove his spleen after taking several big hits in Tampa Bay’s 26-24 loss to Carolina.

Questions regarding Simms’ toughness were answered that day. However, questions still remain regarding whether Simms is the right quarterback to lead Jon Gruden’s offense.

Simms made progress in almost every game he started in 2005 until Tampa Bay’s season ended against Washington in the playoffs. His play convinced the Bucs to make the tough decision to part ways with Brian Griese in a salary cap-related maneuver, and that looked like the right decision in training camp, where Simms performed well.

But like Tampa Bay’s offense, Simms struggled throughout preseason, and those woes carried over into the regular season when the Bucs failed to score an offensive touchdown in two straight games and Simms tossed seven interceptions and seven passes batted down and just one touchdown en route to Tampa Bay’s 0-3 start.

Tampa Bay’s offense has also struggled with rookie QB Bruce Gradkowski in the lineup. However, he’s done a much better job of taking care of the football, tossing nine touchdowns and six interceptions in eight starts.

Assuming he stays healthy, Gradkowski will have started 12 regular season games by the end of the 2006 regular season, which would be just three less than Simms, a fourth-year player.

The Bucs regret going into the 2006 season with little depth at the quarterback position. What little depth they had dwindled after Luke McCown suffered a serious knee injury in June and Simms underwent a Splenectomy in September.

Tampa Bay obviously isn’t high on Tim Rattay, who is earning $1.2 million as a backup and is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent in 2007. And while Luke McCown is under contract next season, the team is still evaluating him and doesn’t feel he’s ready to become a starter.

As of right now, only two quarterbacks – Gradkowski and McCown – are under contract with the Bucs in ’07. They have combined for just 12 regular season starts in their young pro careers.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Bucs are attempting to re-sign Simms. In fact, don’t be surprised at all if Tampa Bay attempts to re-sign Simms before free agency starts in March, and then takes a hard look at the free agent market for a veteran quarterback that can come in a compete with Simms and Gradkowski for the starting job.

Remember, that’s similar to what the Bucs attempted to do during the 2005 offseason when they successfully restructured Griese’s contract, and then continued to negotiate with Jeff Garcia’s agent in an attempt to bring two veteran signal callers to Tampa Bay to compete for the starting job.

Unfortunately for the Bucs, the pickings at this particular position appear to be slim in free agency next year.

The available candidates could include Drew Bledsoe (Dallas), Mark Brunell (Washington), Trent Green (Kansas City), Brett Favre (Green Bay), Byron Leftwich (Jacksonville), Jake Plummer (Denver) and Kurt Warner (Arizona).

Each of these players is under contract with their respective teams next year, but could become cap casualties during the offseason.

The Bucs would love to have the opportunity to pursue Atlanta QB Matt Schaub, who thrived in the West Coast offense at Virginia and has been sitting the bench behind Michael Vick during his career. But he’s scheduled to become a restricted free agent, which means Tampa Bay likely would have to give up a significant amount of compensation in order to obtain his services, especially from a division rival.

As one team official put it, the Bucs will be “looking for a quarterback in their prime and with a lot of clout.”

Well, Bledsoe turns 35 in February, Warner will be 36 in June and both Brunell and Green turn 37 next fall. With the exception of Green, each of these quarterbacks is currently holding a clipboard on game days. It’s probably safe to say that none of those players are in their prime.

Leftwich, 27, has started 44 career games and has tossed 51 touchdowns and 36 interceptions, but the 6-foot-5, 240-pound quarterback is considered by some to be injury prone and was recently benched in favor of David Garrard.

One player that hasn’t lived up to the hype, but possesses a lot of the attributes Gruden looks for in a quarterback, is Plummer.

Plummer has good mobility (rushed for 1,851 yards and 17 touchdowns during his pro career) and a significant amount of playing and starting experience in the West Coast offense from his five seasons with the Denver Broncos.

Many believe the 6-foot-2, 210-pound Plummer has underachieved, and some of his stats would support such a notion. Plummer has completed just 57.1 percent of his career passes and thrown for 29,253 yards while tossing 161 touchdowns and 160 interceptions.

The biggest knock on Plummer is his decision-making ability. He’s earned a reputation for forcing throws and was recently benched in favor of first-round pick Jay Cutler.

Believe it or not, there are glaring similarities between Plummer and Rich Gannon, who was a journeyman quarterback before finding an offense he could thrive in out in Oakland. Gannon (6-3, 215) joined the Gruden-led Raiders when he was 33. Plummer will turn 32 next month. Both quarterbacks are similar in size and have good mobility, which Gruden craves in a quarterback.

One obstacle Tampa Bay might have to overcome if it does indeed want to pursue Plummer is the fact that he’s under contract with Denver through the 2009 season. That means the Broncos could attempt to trade Plummer before releasing him in March, and there will be several other teams, including Cleveland, Detroit and Oakland, in the market for a veteran quarterback during the offseason.

Perhaps the most intriguing option for the Buccaneers will be Favre, who flirted with retirement last offseason and could head down that path in 2007.

However, if Favre, who turns 38 next October, still wants to play football and the Packers decide they don’t want him back for another season, or can’t afford him as his base salary is scheduled to increase from $7 million to $11 million next year, you can bet the Buccaneers, particularly Gruden, will put a full court press on getting the future Hall of Famer to Tampa Bay.

Gruden is a coach and a playcaller, but he’s also a fan of proven players in this league, and Favre certainly is one of his favorites. Gruden tried to lure the late Reggie White out of retirement when he was traded to Tampa Bay in 2002, and attempted to accomplish the same feat with former 49ers QB Steve Young.

Both of those attempts were to no avail, but Favre could be different. Remember – Gruden worked with him in Green Bay for three seasons when he was the Packers wide receivers coach.

Granted, that was a long time ago, but there’s no disputing the fact that Favre (6-2, 222) has been a proven player since then, completing 61.3 percent of his passes for 56,249 yards and tossing 410 touchdowns and 265 interceptions while winning a Super Bowl with Green Bay and taking the Packers to a total of two of them.

Of course, Favre would have to want to play football and be willing to play for another team, and would have to be convinced that he’d be joining a struggling Bucs team that’s on its way up, and not on the way down. But perhaps that decision might be an easier one to make after watching the success a veteran signal caller like Steve McNair is having in his first season with Baltimore after spending 11 years with the same franchise in Houston/Tennessee.

One concern the Bucs would have is how long Favre would want to play for, especially if they had to trade the Packers to get him to Tampa Bay. But even if he played just one season in Tampa Bay, Favre, who has had some of his better seasons in the West Coast offense, could serve a great mental mentor for younger quarterbacks like Simms and Gradkowski. That’s something both quarterbacks have missed this season.

Luring Favre to Tampa Bay in 2007 is likely a long shot, but if there’s even the slightest chance it can happen, you can bet the Bucs will be interested.

JOB SECURITY?
Some fans and critics haven’t been shy in regards to being critical of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, particularly head coach Jon Gruden, whose team has a 3-8 record and is heading for its third losing season in four years.

In fact, some are calling for Gruden and Bucs general manager Bruce Allen to be fired at the end of the season, citing the fact that the team has compiled a 28-33 regular season record since winning Super Bowl XXXVII.

Of course, Gruden’s supporters will point out the fact that the Bucs have produced a 38-37 regular season record, two NFC South division championships and a Super Bowl victory under Gruden since 2002.

While those two sides have been heard, and the debate likely will continue as the Bucs’ disappointing 2006 season comes to a close, no one has heard from Gruden … until now.

What does the head coach think when he hears the criticism and fans calling for his dismissal?

“I appreciate people’s opinion,” said Gruden. “I’m not going to speculate about my job. If the Buccaneers want to make a change, then that’s their objective. But I feel confident about what we’re doing and what needs to be done. I’m a pretty realistic person. I’m just going to continue to work hard. People are entitled to their opinion. I certainly respect them.”

While the head coach has made some mistakes along the way, Gruden has also been the victim of some unusual and not-so-kind circumstances, including Tampa Bay’s loss of several premium draft picks and salary cap obstacles and overages that were inherited by Allen.

When asked if he thought his critics understood some of the circumstances in which he and the Bucs have had to deal with and endue since winning the Super Bowl, Gruden suggested that at the end of the day there is only one opinion that ultimately matters when it comes to his future with the Buccaneers, and that is ownership’s opinion.

“I’m not a really deep and philosophical person,” said Gruden. “Whether people understand or not, I’m coming to work and working. I don’t give a damn about any of that. I’m sensitive about one thing, and that’s winning championships. I realize there’s a lot of work to be done here. All I am going to do is keep coming to work and working. The people that judge me will make the proper decision for the Buccaneers.”

The Glazers have yet to comment publicly on the state of the team or the future of Gruden and Allen.

SHOTGUN GROUNDED … FOR NOW
For those of you who were looking forward to seeing the shotgun formation debut in head coach Jon Gruden’s offense in Tampa Bay, you’re going to have to wait some more.

“It’s in the works right now,” Gruden said of the shotgun formation. “You aren’t going to see it in Pittsburgh, but there’s a possibility you’ll see the Bucs in the shotgun.”

Gruden, who has been opposed to implementing the shotgun formation in his offense, changed his tune and is open to the possibility. His change of heart came when rookie quarterback Bruce Gradkowski, who thrived in the shotgun formation at Toledo, became Tampa Bay’s starting signal caller in Week 4.

The Bucs even came out in the shotgun in their game against Cincinnati in their "Star Wars" formation, but didn’t actually run a play, electing instead to call a timeout.

One reservation Gruden has about using the shotgun is the fact that his players didn’t execute any plays from that formation during training camp or preseason. While they might continue to practice playing out of the shotgun, Gruden suggested it might be on hold until next year.

“Don’t plan on seeing the shotgun this year,” said Gruden. “We’ve got enough things we’re working on. The shotgun doesn’t really guarantee us better protection. It doesn’t guarantee us anything other than something to write or talk about.”


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