In the fall of 1998, Peyton Manning set an NFL record for the finest rookie season by a quarterback. Manning, the ballyhooed No.1 overall pick from Tennessee, passed for 3,739 yards with 26 TDs.
But as special as Manning was, and still is, that rookie year was dotted with moments of disaster. Actually, there were quite a few.
The man with the golden arm and the Hall of Fame heritage also pitched 28 interceptions. The Colts finished 3-13.
The Eagles’ Donovan McNabb felt a similar sting his rookie season. The same could be said for the Falcons Michael Vick or the Cowboys Troy Aikman.
Generally, the right of passage for most rookie quarterbacks is a four-month stint in a medieval torture chamber, while the torturer has a toothache.
So, down five games in the loss column and well behind NFC South leading Saints, is Bruce Gradkowski the answer?
Don’t be ridiculous.
He can’t be because history tells us so.
History tells us that rookies hit the wall, and get confused by coverages, and get overwhelmed by opponents, and become predictable to defenses and develop moments of self doubt.
History tells us, that unless you’re Ben Roethlisberger, with a devastating running game and even more devastating defense, you’re going to look like a rookie when you’re a rookie.
Now, no one’s burying Gradkowski in the woodpile of failed Bucs draft picks. Shoot, he’s already proven far more valuable in the sixth round than Charles McRae was in the first.
But if Tampa Bay is to salvage the season, and some wounded pride along the way, Gradkowski is going to have to be part of the ride, not the conductor.
“I think I’m progressing pretty well,” he said. “I’d definitely like to pick it up. Coming out, this is going to be my fifth start and it’s time to really start picking up the slack … I set the high standards so I’m not happy with where I am right now.”
At least he can read the tea leaves. In the past two games, the Bucs have failed to score an offensive touchdown. In the meantime, Gradkowski’s play hasn’t taken many steps forward.
True, his receivers could stop rejecting passes sent their way and the team could stop expecting 80-yard drives every possession. But the reality is that the Bucs offense has not gotten better and its overall condition seems headed for the trauma room.
In NFL law, that starts with the quarterback.
If Chris Simms was putting up numbers like this, talk radio would light up asking for – you guessed it – Gradkowski. If it were Brad Johnson, there might have been a boycott of the games. If it were Trent Dilfer … well, never mind.
So while coach Jon Gruden says Gradkowski is on the fast track, the question is to where?
“We’re breaking NFL records for the amount of plays we’re running on the practice field,” Gruden said. “And he doesn’t take some of them; he takes every stinking one of them, so he has no choice to not hit the wall. We’ve got a great support system for him here. I’m the president of his fan club. (Quarterbacks coach) Paul Hackett is my assistant, and we’re going to help him push through this season. This is tough, man, for a rookie quarterback to do what he’s doing – tough.”
No one’s denying that. And no one’s denying that we all, including musings in this very space, have succumbed to the greatness that is Gradkowski’s occasional magic. We’ve all seen him do his thing and thought, “Shoot, there’s something there!”
In the very least, the Bucs have this, Gradkowski doesn’t throw picks. In his 155 throws as a pro, only one has landed in the hands of the guys in the other jerseys.
“A lot has gone well” Gruden said. “I’m really just very excited about his progress. He’s taking care of the ball. A lot of people say that’s easy to do, but not turning the ball over is a tremendous accomplishment. He’s kept us in every game and played well enough for us to win all of his starts.”
The Bucs can’t and shouldn’t ask for more.
But while it’s impossible to predict what happens the rest of the way, write this fact. The Bucs will win with Gradkowski. They will win without him.
They will not win because of him.