He may not be Superman or Spiderman or Homer Simpson, for that matter.
He may not be the next coming of Johnny Unitas, or Dan Marino, or Peyton Manning, either.
The truth is Bruce Gradkowski is just a rookie quarterback, with a rookie’s giddiness and a rookie’s startled-eye look on the game. Shoot, he still throws up before taking the field and certainly will make a few mistakes the rest of the way.
But dang, after starting the season with four straight loses, the Bucs’ newest sensation has delivered something, something very unique.
He’s brought his own style. He’s brought his own pizzazz. He’s brought a delightful combination of Hollywood charm and Comedy Channel humor. Mostly, he brought the Bucs a needed check in the win column.
“I don’t know what his stats are, but when you lead your team down to a win in the last seconds of a game in your second career start, that’s the type of thing that John Elway and Dan Marino are known for,” tight end Alex Smith said. “But, to do that in your second career start, now that’s something.”
Indeed it was.
Once he got over the customary pre-game jitters, which included a visit to the bathroom and a reminder from fullback Mike Alstott that he had earned the right to be introduced last coming out of the tunnel, the sixth-round pick from Toledo made his first game at home one for his scrapbook.
There’ll be pictures of his performance and quotes from his teammates. There’ll be stories of heroism from Bucs fans and complaints about bad calls from the Bengals’ faithful.
All that stuff is irrelevant.
Because, in the end, there’ll be one undisputed fact – Gradkowski’s poise and confidence piloted his team to a gut-wrenching 14-13 win over Cincinnati in a game that very well could chart the rest of the Bucs’ season.
“I was pretty confident coming in,” Gradkowski said. “Just knowing the guys I had around me … It’s a lot easier on me when those guys are doing their jobs. I just do the best that I can.”
But, that’s not all. He did it with enough style and poise to make him seem 33 and not 23. He completed a game-winning 8-yard touchdown pass to Michael Clayton with 43 seconds left to cap a nine-play, 54-yard drive.
Are you kidding me? This guy was playing for the Toledo Rockets one year ago. The Toledo Rockets!
“I told Bruce, you’re the leader of this team now and you can’t see yourself as a rookie once you’ve got that first game under your belt,” running back Cadillac Williams said. “The guy could be big-time.”
Big-time, you say. Those are mighty strong words to describe someone eight quarters into his NFL career. But, Williams, his teammates and the Bengals defense can testify that Gradkowski’s willingness to sling the ball around and his penchant for scrambling when things break down make him a real challenge for opposing defensive coordinators.
“He’s just a winner,” cornerback Ronde Barber said. “Some guys are just winners. No matter what, they find ways to succeed and Bruce has got that. We’re fortunate that a young guy, put under a lot of pressure, has the ability to handle it. We will see how far he can lead us.”
Okay, it’s a lot to hang on Gradkowski, but he seems equipped with the tools and humble enough to withstand the weight.
In his post-game news conference, with dad, Bruce senior, sitting a few rows deep, Gradkowski made no mistakes. He thanked his coach for steadying him on the sidelines before the final drive. He thanked his offensive weapons for making plays.
He thanked center John Wade for making the right snaps and right calls. When was the last time a quarterback thanked his center?
Perhaps it’s too early to be sure, but doesn’t this kid have a flair for the dramatic?
Perhaps it’s too naïve to be convinced, but isn’t his ability to keep everyone off their seats undeniable?
What happens to Gradkowski and the Bucs the rest of the way is anyone’s guess, but don’t fault his teammates for feeling a sudden rush.
This kid has something … and the Bucs want as much of it as possible.