Monday morning's training camp practice at Disney's Wide World of Sports complex featured a few firsts for the Buccaneers.
Not only was Monday morning's practice the first the Bucs held in full pads, it was also the first workout that featured starting quarterback Jeff Garcia.
Garcia was excused from training camp check-in day and the first two days of training camp practice so he could attend the 35th-anniversairy celebration of his father's junior college football team's championship in California.
"Coach Gruden told me it was good to have me back, and then he reminded me that 31 other teams started their training camps off with their starting quarterbacks," Garcia said smiling. "I appreciate what he let me do because it was important to my dad, myself and my family. In no way did I ever want to leave my teammates or create any talk about me holding out because that was not the issue at all. I was grateful to [general manager] Bruce Allen, Coach Gruden and my teammates for understanding where I was. I'm happy to be back."
Shortly after he took on Tampa Bay's defense in the team's first padded practice of the year, Garcia faced questions from the media regarding the Bucs' reported interest in retired Green Bay Packers QB Brett Favre.
Favre, 38, plans to play football in 2008, but the Packers have committed to starting QB Aaron Rodgers since Favre announced his retirement in March. Favre asked for his release from the Packers, but to no avail.
Green Bay general manager Ted Thompson has asked Favre not to report to Packers training camp in hopes of avoiding a distraction and getting Favre's situation resolved sometime soon.
In the meantime, two teams reportedly have been given permission to speak to Favre – the New York Jets and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Gruden and the Buccaneers have downplayed the reports that have linked Favre to Tampa Bay, but there appears to be some level of interest, evidenced by the fact that Bucs QB Chris Simms was quoted in the St. Petersburg Times as saying Allen had asked him about Favre and if whether thought it was possible for Favre to come into Bucs training camp and learn the offense while taking a limited number of reps in training camp.
Gruden has referred to Garcia as the team's starting quarterback since the Bucs reported to training camp on Friday, and he reiterated that notion after Monday's practice.
"I'm worried about our football team," Gruden said. "I'd really just prefer to keep this conversation to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Jeff Garcia, as you saw, was our starting quarterback today. We're in our fourth day of training camp. We want to play a lot better football than we did last season.
"It's great to have [Jeff] back. He looks good. He's a difference-maker for us and he's a tempo setter. We're glad he's back. I'm sure there will be a celebration, a wild one indeed, tonight, back at the hotel."
The Bucs have apparently addressed the Favre reports and rumors with Garcia, who answered questions in a press box filled with reporters and television cameras on Monday.
"They could say [they're not interested in Favre publicly], and it sounds like they haven't said that," Garcia said in regards to the fact that Tampa Bay has not come out and completely denied having any interest in Favre. "I feel like I've gotten a good response out of Coach Gruden. I'm not trying to pry it out of him, but I feel like I'm secure in my position. I don't want to sit here and talk about speculation.
"I don't think [Allen and Gruden] necessarily have to come up to me and say, ‘Hey, you're our starting quarterback. You're our guy.' Whether they need to do that or not, I'm not expecting them to. I'm taking the attitude and the focus that I am the guy here. You guys have known them longer than me. You know how you get, or don't get, answers out of them. You know how they are."
This is Garcia's second training camp with the Buccaneers, which is quite refreshing considering the fact that he had a five-year span (2003-07) where he played for five different teams.
A four-time Pro Bowler, Garcia, 38, helped the Bucs win the NFC South division championship while earning a trip to the Pro Bowl as an alternate in 2007.
Facing controversy is something Garcia wishes he could avoid, but it is definitely something he's used to at his position and the experiences he's had throughout his career while playing in San Francisco, Cleveland, Detroit, Philadelphia and most recently Tampa Bay.
"You would think there would come a time, as a player, that you've established yourself at a certain level and you've gotten to a certain point in your career where there aren't any questions anymore about your abilities or what you give or bring to your team, but obviously those questions are still out there. It's been an uphill battle for me throughout my career in terms of getting people to appreciate what I can do on the football field.
"If it means I have to fight that battle again, then so be it. It wouldn't be the first time for me. Does it get old after awhile? Yes, but if that's the push I need at 38 years old, so be it. That's what I'm going to do."
Garcia admitted that he hasn't followed the whole Favre situation as it has unfolded in Green Bay, but suggested the future Hall of Famer had earned the right to start with the Packers.
"As a quarterback looking at another quarterback, he is one of the greatest to ever have played the game," said Garcia. "You would think that he would start, if not there, he'd have a chance to start somewhere else."
That ‘somewhere else' reportedly could be Tampa Bay, which has five quarterbacks on its roster in Garcia, Brian Griese, Luke McCown, Chris Simms and rookie Josh Johnson.
After completing a career-high 63.9 percent of his passes for 2,440 yards and tossing 13 touchdowns and four interceptions in 13 games last year, Garcia believes he is the team's starting quarterback, regardless of whether Favre is traded to Tampa Bay or not.
"I feel like I'm the starting quarterback here. I know I'm the starting quarterback here," Garcia said. "If that changes, they either ship me out because something else has come in, or if something else comes in, as much as the accolades are huge on that side, I'm the starting quarterback here and it's going to be a battle. The best guy that can handle the position and help this team win should be the starting quarterback."
One of the reasons why Garcia is confident he could remain Tampa Bay's starting signal caller, even if the Bucs traded for Favre, is because of the learning curve involved in terms of learning Gruden's playbook.
Gruden worked with Favre in Green Bay as an offensive assistant (1992) and wide receivers coach (1993-94) under former Packers head coach Mike Holmgren. While Favre is quite familiar with the West Coast offense, Gruden has put his own spin on it.
"There are variations to the West Coast styles, and I had a chance to work with the Green Bay staff in Hawaii this year with the Pro Bowl," Garcia said. "Their terminology was very different than ours. The coaches that have coached the system have added levels to it. Coach Gruden has taken it in a certain direction and probably multiplied by probably three or four in terms of the amount of volume we have in the system.
"I'm not saying Brett couldn't learn it because based upon the years he's played he has the mental abilities to pick certain things up, but we have a different way of calling plays."
When given the opportunity, Garcia did not publicly reject the notion of Tampa Bay trading for Favre. His main focus is on helping the Bucs defend their NFC South division title and become the first team in the history of the NFL to play in the Super Bowl at home.
"If [the Bucs] decided to [trade for Favre] and they decided to send me somewhere else, I have a home for [Brett] to step into," Garcia said smiling. "We're talking about something that is all ‘what ifs.' I've gotten caught up in that in the past, but I really can't afford to do that now. I don't want to take away from the things I'm focusing on for this team. If that scenario comes along in the future, I will adjust and react accordingly. If he were to be my teammate in the future and if I were to stay here, I'd welcome him and try to help him, and hope that he'll help me. It's all about being a team and creating a family-like situation."
Gruden has been accused of collecting quarterbacks, and for good reason. He has had nine different quarterbacks start at least one regular season game for the Bucs in his first six seasons in Tampa Bay.
The injury bug certainly has played a significant role in Tampa Bay's obsession with bolstering its quarterback position with depth and talent. Last year, the Bucs signed Garcia on the same day they traded a seventh-round draft pick to the Denver Broncos in exchange for retired QB Jake Plummer, who never played a down for the Bucs and later settled a grievance with Tampa Bay.
When asked why the Gruden-led Bucs seem to always be linked to available quarterbacks, Garcia delivered an intriguing answer.
"He loves quarterbacks," Garcia said of Gruden. "But he likes to just date, he doesn't like to marry."
Garcia is in the final year of his contract and made it known earlier in the offseason that he wanted a new deal that paid him significantly more than the $2 million base salary he's scheduled to earn in 2008.
Last season, Garcia received a $3 million signing bonus after inking his contract and earned $2 million in base salary, but missed out on approximately $1 million in unlikely-to-be-earned incentives due the fact that he missed three games because of injuries and the Bucs decided to rest him in the regular season finale after the team had already secured a playoff spot.
Contract negotiations still are ongoing between Allen and Steve Baker, who serves as Garcia's agent. Although a deal doesn't appear to be imminent, Garcia still is hopeful that his contract situation with the Bucs will resolve itself sometime soon.
"I don't think it's necessarily over, but there's really nothing to report," Garcia said about his contract. "That's something for my agent and Bruce to continue to discuss. If it doesn't get resolved, it is what it is. I signed a two-year contract here and I'm in the second year of my contract and I will play out that contract. I'm not going to look at it and wonder what if or what could have been. I'm going to concentrate on winning football games."
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