With the Buccaneers’ playbook obviously doing him no good, head coach Jon Gruden may have turned to a thesaurus to help him define new terms to explain his offense’s lack of productivity as well as an explanation for pulling his young quarterback.

Deflating (to depress or reduce a person’s ego, hopes, spirits, etc.) was one such word that surfaced early on in Gruden’s Monday morning press conference.

“When you get a guy open deep in a game twice and you’re well-protected, you expect [rookie Bruce Gradkowski] to hit those throws,” Gruden said of his quarterback missing on plays to receiver Joey Galloway.  “That’s the frustrating part of it. I think those are two big plays in the football game where we get nothing. It deflates an offensive team. It deflates a team when you have a chance to strike big and you don’t get anything out of it.”

Missing open opportunities downfield has been a reoccurring theme for the Bucs this season. On Sunday, after the miss to Galloway and a poor throw later in the game on a simple in-route to running back Michael Pittman, Gruden had seen enough, going back on his word that he wouldn’t pull Gradkowski and inserting back up Tim Rattay in the fourth quarter.

When asked about the switch, Gruden said he felt Gradkowski looked a little tentative and missed on some basic throws he needed to make.

At that point, he felt the football team needed a spark and that a quarterback change might provide it.

Gradkowski is still his starter, however, the two quarterbacks will split reps with the first team in preparation for Chicago this week. Gruden refused to elaborate on how short a leash his rookie signal caller may be on come Sunday.

In relief, Rattay was 9-of-13 for 83 yards and came up two yards shy of putting the ball in the end zone on the team’s final offensive possession. It was his first regular season game action all year and it came against a defense allowing him to throw underneath while protecting a 17-6 lead.

Tampa Bay traded a sixth-round pick to San Francisco in exchange for Rattay in 2005. Prior to that, he played five years in San Francisco with his best season coming in 2003 when he threw for 2,169 yards and 10 touchdowns in nine games as a starter for the 49ers.

Entering Bucs’ camp this year, he was the second-string quarterback, but Gradkowski played himself into the backup role, leap-frogging the veteran with a good showing in the preseason.

On Monday, Rattay curbed his enthusiasm about getting another opportunity to get back on the field.

“You want to play. Everybody wants to play,” Rattay said. “There isn’t a person in the NFL who doesn’t want to play, who would like to sit on the bench. But that’s a coach’s decision, I respect that and so I’ll prepare like I always do and be ready in case something happens.”

The Bucs’ offense has gone 32 possessions without scoring a touchdown, a stat that’s deflating to fans, an often-exhausted defense and more than likely Gradkowski himself. Yet after the game, and again in Monday’s locker room, the young quarterback denied his confidence has been shaken.

“Physically, I have the confidence that I’d be able to make the plays,” Gradkowski said when asked whether he thought it was the mental or physical aspect of being an NFL quarterback that is tougher. “That’s the way I felt coming in and it was being able to get to the [mental] stuff quick enough, and right now I’m just not putting both together. If I do that, it will be all right.”

At this point in the season, the search for answers has been narrowed down into a few identifiable points.

Gruden said there is a difference between recognizing looks and play-making ability. The team is definitely in dire need of more play making.

Gruden called his 22-year-old quarterback a “high-strung kid,” hinting that nerves may be holding him back and inhibiting his ability to play up to his potential. But that seems it would be the nature of the position at any level, certainly the NFL. After all, isn’t poise what NFL experts credited young quarterbacks like New England’s Tom Brady and Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger with having an abundance of, explaining their early success?

As a coach who has worked with some of the best quarterbacks in the league, Gruden is without a doubt respected and qualified in his critique. He also said Gradkowski’s fundamentals seem to be poor lately.

“At the end of the day, the foundation of this young guy is his fundamentals and his technique,” Gruden said.  “When you get into the game and you’re taking a poor drop, you’re too quick, you’re too slow, you’re not behind the center, your launching spot is off, we’re going to struggle.

“A lot of these fundamentals and these techniques that he’s doing, he’s doing for the first time.  I’m not going to say that every week, now – we need to see progress.  But at the same time, there are some good things that he’s doing and there are some clear-cut areas that we need to see progress.”

In judging his own performance against Atlanta, Gradkowski said he watched the film immediately after the game and thinks he is being too tentative at times and that’s getting in his way.

“I’m trying to be too careful out there sometimes, especially after last week,” Gradkowski said,  referencing his three-interception performance the week before at Pittsburgh and how it may have impacted his game Sunday. “I don’t want to turn the ball over. But when I’m at my best is when I jut let it loose and just have fun.”
There are times when Gradkowski does feel relaxed and as if he is having fun, and then there are others when he admits to pressing too much. If he is the emotional person Gruden describes him as, those emotions need to find balance fairly quickly because the next defense he faces, which comes this Sunday in Chicago, could very well be the best he’s seen all season.

Gradkowski did move the ball fairly well in the first half against Atlanta, leading the offense on two scoring drives, albeit both field goals. And on the second drive, the play called on third down at the Falcons’ 5-yard line was a draw to running back Michael Pittman for no gain. You’d have to wonder if Gruden’s lack of confidence in his quarterback was a factor in that play call.

Regardless, the Bucs’ red zone offense is struggling to say the least. Of 26 possessions inside their opponents’ 20, Tampa Bay has just 12 touchdowns. It’s been 11 quarters since they have found the end zone at all.

“It’s definitely frustrating especially when we’re moving the ball in that first half,” Gradkowski said. “If we put 14 points on the board there, it’s a whole new game and we’re talking about different things right now. So it’s a matter of a play here and a play there that we don’t execute good enough to score. I mean, we’re on the edge. We just have to get over that edge.”

Tampa Bay has just 14 offensive touchdowns to speak of in 13 games this season. Only Oakland has less with 12. To put that into perspective, Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson has 29 by himself, an NFL record he achieved against Denver Sunday.

Cadillac Williams has one touchdown while fullback Mike Alstott, tight end Alex Smith and cornerback Ronde Barber each have two. Yes, that’s cornerback Ronde Barber.

As a team, the Chargers lead the league with a whopping 50 touchdowns.

Might there be a need to alert the Chicago Transit Authority this weekend on a possibility the “A-Train” could be put into use on a cold day in the Windy City?

It would certainly seem like Mike Alstott fits the bill for an old school game of Red Rover-Red Rover this Sunday. When questioned about Alstott’s role in Tampa Bay’s offense, or lack thereof, and if he would get more carries against the Bears, Gruden said that was certainly something he’d consider.

That road has been gone down many times before, though. Fans love to see the big fullback tote the pill. They want more. On Monday Gruden said he has a lot of respect for Alstott, “To be honest with you, I love him,” he said.

But in reality, the chances of No. 40 getting the ball any more than he has is any game this year are slim.

Lost in Sunday’s defeat to the Falcons was the fact Alstott moved past the 5,000-yard rushing plateau for his career. He did it on a second quarter run on third-and-1 run that he bounced outside for 17 yards.

It’s hard to pin the lack of ground yards on one player. The fact is, the Bucs running game is simply not producing. Starting running back Cadillac Williams averaged 2.4 yards per carry against Atlanta and committed his third fumble of the season. Gruden still refers to him as the future of the team and continues to deflect criticism off of him by pointing out that the offensive line is not opening holes.

While Alstott remains the fan favorite, the fact is he is averaging less per carry (3.3) then Williams (3.6).

Better blocking, better game planning and a better job of making adjustments are things Gruden feels the team needs to do better.

“I’ll be honest with you, our run blocking yesterday left a lot to be desired,” Gruden said. “We didn’t make on-the-move adjustments very well.  Defenses are allowed to stem and move before the ball is snapped.  When that occurs, we’ve got to be able to react quicker and more precisely.”

Gruden said the plan is to use Pittman more and sprinkle in Alstott. He is disappointed with the run game, but at this stage there isn’t much he can do that would not include a drastic change in philosophy.

If this season were an episode of The Apprentice we’d all be waiting for Gruden to be called into Donald Trump’s office and listening with our ears against the door for the famous catch phrase.

Certainly there is one professional sports owner in Tampa that would have a difficult time not pulling the trigger on the Bucs head coach given the team’s lack of success, but he’s busy running a baseball team in New York.

In all fairness, calling for Gruden’s head is the vogue thing to do in these trying times for Bucs fans. Comparisons between this year’s team and those of the late 1970s have even surfaced and maybe not without good reason.

As expected, Gruden is now being forced to answer questions about his future and his accountability to The Glazer family.

“I got a lot to do, I don’t worry about [job security],” Gruden said. “I’ve got a lot of confidence that the Glazers will do what’s right for Tampa and that’s all I care about.

“I’m sure I’ll be on the hot channel there for some people to talk about, but there’s a lot of good things in store for Tampa. I do believe that. Right now it’s a cold dark place, and you’ve got to keep your fist rolled up and live through these times and you’ve got to be a survivor. You’ve got to keep pushing.”

In separating opinion from fact, there are three concrete references that are hard to overlook. One, Sunday’s loss established the first time since 1977 that Tampa Bay has been swept in conference play. Two, the loss officially puts Gruden’s coaching mark with the Bucs in the red at 38-39. And last, which was determined several weeks ago, this will be Gruden’s third losing season in the last four years since winning the Super Bowl in 2002.
Whether the glass is half full or half empty is in the eye of the beholder. It would be tough to say he isn’t putting forth the effort. His work ethic is well documented. There have been a rash of unfortunate injuries, most notably to the team’s starting quarterback, Chris Simms. And he does have a young nucleus of players to work with as well as a good amount of draft picks and salary cap money to build on next year, should he stay.

Plus, you don’t have to look very far for evidence that a three-win team can turn it around in one season with a few good draft picks and free agents (see New Orleans).

“[The Glazers] have been very supportive of me and our staff, Gruden said. “I’m not going to address any speculation. That’ll be a decision that they make and I’m real confident that I’m in this for the long haul and we have some areas that we need to redeem ourselves and that we need to get some guys well.

“We’re missing some key players and whatever happens will happen. But my sole purpose in life right now is to go upstairs and find a way to beat thee vaunted Chicago Bears, because they’re really good.”

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