Tampa Bay head coach Jon Gruden said he wanted to sleep on it.
Of course, “it” was referring to the tough decision he had to make after Tampa Bay’s 10-6 loss to the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday afternoon. In the second quarter of that contest, Gruden benched quarterback Brad Johnson and replaced him with second-year signal caller Chris Simms in an effort to provide the team’s lifeless offense with a spark.
Although Simms led the Bucs on two 71-yard scoring drives, both of which resulted in field goals, he fell short of leading his team back from a 10-0 deficit, which ultimately put the Pewter Pirates in a 0-2 hole to start the season.
So, the question all inquiring minds wanted to know Monday was which quarterback will start for Tampa Bay in Oakland next Sunday?
“Brad Johnson is the starting quarterback,” said Gruden. “He’ll start in Oakland and we consider him an excellent football player and starting quarterback. We made a change yesterday to try to give our team a spark; a different perspective. We thought we needed that. Brad will be the quarterback in Oakland and we expect for him to play well. We have to help him, everybody. Not just the coaches, not just the linemen, wide receivers, tight ends and backs. We all have to pick up our play now and we’ll let Brad Johnson find a way to help us win.”
Johnson has completed 28 of 44 (63.6 percent) of his pass attempts for 203 yards and has yet to lead the offense on a scoring drive. But Gruden was quick to defend his starting quarterback Monday, citing the fact that the players around him were struggling as well.
“It is a very difficult position to play, the quarterback position,” said Gruden. “It is very hard to coach that position as well. Brad Johnson is a heck of a football player and a team man. He has been victimized by a lot of circumstances. The lineup has been a revolving door. It has been difficult on him. His style, the way in which he plays is a very system-oriented quarterback – [he is] a very disciplined football player. With all of the changes, I think it has inhibited him to some degree. Hopefully, some of the experience some of these new players have gotten the last couple of games will help them in improving their game as well. Brad will be the quarterback.”
But for how long? Dating back to the 2003 season, over the past three games, Johnson, who earned a trip to the Pro Bowl during the Bucs’ 2002 Super Bowl year, has completed 41 of 67 (61 percent) pass attempts for 299 yards and has tossed zero touchdowns and five interceptions. If you go back over the last four games, Johnson’s touchdown-interception ratio is 4-9. And if you go back over the last 11 regular games, Johnson has tossed 12 touchdowns and 17 interceptions.
Those stats have some thinking that Johnson could find himself on the bench again if he can’t find a way to make more plays and help ignite the Bucs’ 30th ranked offense.
“The big thing is we have to find a way to get something going, running, receiving, whatever it may be,” Gruden said. “A lot of times the quarterback gets too much credit, just like the head coach does, when you win, and sometimes he gets too much credit when you don’t. We made a change yesterday in the game to try to ignite our football team. Maybe use a couple of different types of plays and feature a little different series of offense, but Brad Johnson is Brad Johnson. He is going to play like Brad Johnson. He is very efficient with the football and makes some plays along the way, which we think he can.
“Sometimes you’re going to do things by feel; the pulse of your team, you’re standing down there in the heat of the battle. Brad Johnson is going to be the quarterback. Obviously, he’s just like everybody. Like all of us, we have to perform and get results. He understands that. He’s going to do a good job for us and we just have to get the battle cry out to everybody on offense to help out and I’m confident that we can do that.”
Gruden blames Johnson’s inability to lead the Bucs into the end zone on a rash of injuries to the wide receiver corps and the fact that the team’s offense has six new starters.
“The cast around him has changed,” Gruden said of his offense compared to two years ago. “It’s pretty evident. Unfortunately, three of the key receivers that we counted on playing are not playing and if you count Edell Shepherd that’s four. But we are going to work hard with Michael Clayton. I think he (Michael Clayton) we be a great player for us. We think Bill Schroeder, Charles Lee, and Tim Brown have to understand they just have to pick up the slack now and we are confident that they can. It’s tough on Brad, and losing Michael Pittman has not been easy. We had some changes in the line. The ‘Bull’s’ approach hasn’t changed. I do agree that continuity hasn’t been one of our strong suits here. It’s been a real obstacle for us.”
More changes could be made to Tampa Bay’s starting offensive lineup, but Gruden hopes those changes, which could take place on the offensive line and at the tight end position, will help Johnson help the Bucs’ woeful offense.
“We’re going to look at that,” Gruden said of possible lineup changes. “I can’t comment on all of the specific things that we will potentially do, but we will look at any edge that we can create. Right now, given the injuries and situation at wide receiver, some of these guys have been thrust into critical roles. Tim Brown has become our punt returner among other things, but we’ll take a good look at it. We’ll look at the running backs and the tight ends again as a staff throughout the day, and try to circulate the roster the best we can with the players we think give us the best chance in Oakland.”
Although Gruden is sticking with Johnson as his starter, Simms, who completed 21 of 32 passes (65.6 percent) for 175 yards and threw one interception and had two fumbles in his pro debut, can build on his performance and will be the backup in Oakland, according to his head coach.
“Obviously if Chris had made a clean exchange on the goal-line and we scored a touchdown there in that last two minutes, you’re looking at a field goal to win you the game,” Gruden said. “It was disappointing. I thought he showed great poise and he shows great promise as a future player for our organization. To go out there, against the Seattle Seahawks, and hit 21 out of 32 in your first game, is a great performance for a young kid. Yes, there are seven or eight plays in that game he is going to look at today, and be stunned at the outcome of what he did with the football and why he did what he did. He has to grow from that. I thought he did show great confidence and delivered some sensational throws, but he made some mistakes, which I am sure he will address today.”
While Simms threw a costly interception with one minute remaining in the game and the Bucs driving into Seahawks territory, Gruden said he had no regrets in terms of his decision to bench Johnson and go with the second-year quarterback.
“I don’t second guess the decision,” Gruden said. “It’s a tough decision. A very tough decision. I’m going to be very loyal to Brad Johnson. It may not appear that way based on taking him out of the football game, but I believe that was necessary to give our team another vehicle, another look, to try to shock them into another zone of playmaking. I thought (Simms) did do that in the early part of his performance yesterday. I talked to Brad last night. All I can say about Brad Johnson is that he is a class act. He has been around a long time. He understands why we made the change. I don’t believe he’ll agree with all of the reasons for us making the change, but I can only say he handled it with great class. I truly expect him to come back this week, have a hell of a week of practice and find a way to get this ship right.”
Simms provided the offense with a spark, but it wasn’t quite big enough. Now Johnson will attempt to give Gruden’s offense a much-needed spark when he returns to the starting lineup against the Oakland Raiders on Sunday night. If he can’t, the Bucs will probably have to rally around Simms.
“Brad is an even-keel guy,” said Gruden. “Brad has a steady approach to business. Do I think he will spark them? I’m not sure. He’s a great competitor. At the same time, with Chris Simms, you do have a young left-handed quarterback that has put together back-to-back solid preseasons, that has a rifle for an arm now, and has mobility and we are excited about the young fellow. We really are. So, we’re eager to see where he can go with his future. At the same time we’re very comfortable with Brad Johnson. But, we have to help him so he can play his game and that goes for play calling and that goes for everybody.
“I also believe that the guys in the locker room are very confident in Brad Johnson. I think they’re very confident in Chris Simms. I think that they witnessed what’s happening with Chris on the practice field over the last year-and-a-half. I also believe that our football team truly understands we’re going to do everything to give our team a chance to win. And yesterday we felt one of the things we needed to do was generate some sort of spark on this offensive football team and maybe Chris could do that.”
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