Tampa Bay may have a new starting quarterback for its regular season finale in Arizona Sunday.

With Bucs starting quarterback Brian Griese listed as questionable for Sunday’s contest with a right hip strain, head coach Jon Gruden said Monday that second-year QB Chris Simms could made his second pro start against the Cardinals.

“Brian Griese is a sore man today,” said Gruden. “He has a right hip strain; we’ll list him as questionable for the game.

“We’ll see the significance of the injury. Obviously, if he’s hurt and he can’t play, Chris would be the guy who would go. But I don’t want to speculate any further. We’ll see how Brian feels here in the next couple of days.”

Simms, who made his first pro start in place of Brad Johnson in Week 5, lost his starting job to Griese after suffering a left shoulder sprain in the first quarter of that contest.

Griese has since completed 69.3 percent of his passes, thrown for 2,632 yards and tossed 20 touchdowns and 11 interceptions while leading the Bucs to a 5-6 record.

However, after getting off to a great start, Griese’s production has declined over the past several games. In fact, Griese has tossed 14 touchdowns and 11 interceptions over the past seven contests, and three of those picks have returned for touchdowns. That’s something Gruden says Griese needs to correct, but the players around him must play better, too.

“I’m not going to stand up here and criticize him and hold him at blame for the loss yesterday,” Gruden said of Griese, who tossed two interceptions and fumbled during Sunday’s 37-20 loss to Carolina. “He threw an interception — he got blindsided as he threw the ball. That, to me, means we’ve got to block better. The other interception he throws is a defensive lineman who stops rushing, tips the ball and makes a great play. When you throw the football, there are chances that something can go wrong. But we’re going to continue to grind on high-percentage decision-making. He is throwing for 70 percent in 10 weeks; he’s thrown 20 touchdown passes in 10 games. I’m going to accentuate the positive things that he’s done, yet we’re going to really grind on the negatives. We’ve all had our share of negative happenings this year, not just at that position.

“A lot of his decision-making has been outstanding. The bottom line is, there are seven or eight of his 12 interceptions that are preventable and we’re going to work hard to do that. We’re going to continue to develop Chris Simms and we’re looking forward to having a fierce battle and competition. That’s what we’d like to see.

“I think he’s playing with great confidence at times. He might be trying to get a little bit too much out of plays as opposed to taking a more conservative route and throwing the ball away or checking it down. That is correctable and that is something that’s got to be corrected.”

The Bucs must make a decision on whether to keep Griese past this season. Although he’s signed through the 2006 season, the 29-year-old quarterback is scheduled to receive a $6 million roster bonus in March, which would make his 2005 cap value approximately $8 million.

“I’m not going to get into all the money,” Gruden said when asked about Griese’s contract. “He’s second or third in the NFC in passing and he’s done it, in my opinion, with a wide range of characters. He’s played with just about every combination feasible and done some great things. I’m not going to get into the value and the money and all those things at this time. But I’ll say this — he is, at times, very, very good. He has had a couple of interceptions here in the last three or four weeks. Some are very preventable and must be prevented by him through decision-making. Some, he’s been victimized by circumstance. Sometimes when you get hit when you’re throwing, there’s not a hell of a lot you can do except to punt on third down. I’m going to continue to feel very strongly. I don’t know anybody who’s hit 30 out of 40 one week against Carolina and 27 out of 38 the other. You can check that, particularly the last seven or eight weeks. This is a hell of a defense, the North Carolina Panthers, particularly the second half of the season. They’re a handful.”

Brian Griese wasn’t the only Buc to suffer a significant injury Sunday.

Left tackle Derrick Deese suffered a sprained left foot and will be listed as questionable for Sunday’s game in Arizona.

With Deese possibly sidelined, Bucs head coach Jon Gruden suggested the team could turn to second-year T Anthony Davis, who started three of the Bucs’ four preseason contests while Deese was rendered unavailable with an ankle injury.

“Yes, that could be, yes,” Gruden said when asked if Davis could play in place of Deese. “He is a guy that has blossomed; had a very good preseason. He is a guy that actually started, I believe, three or four of our preseason games and played deep into the game. He is a guy that has done well and flourished on our practice field. There is a chance that he will be active and playing. We will see the status of Derrick Deese in a couple of days.”

Tampa Bay rushed the ball just 11 times for 43 yards against Carolina en route to a 37-20 loss at Raymond James Stadium.

The Bucs currently have the 29th-ranked running game and are averaging 95.1 yards via the ground game per contest. According to Bucs head coach Jon Gruden, the team would like to make more of a commitment to the running game than it did against the Panthers.

“We would like to run more,” said Gruden. “Also, if the team we’re playing is going to be committed to blitzing, we’re going to be smart about that. We felt good going in. I think Brian hit nine out of his first 10 throws, and the one that was incomplete was intercepted and he was hit while throwing. There are certain ways to attack a blitzing team. You either stand there and get hit and run the ball into eight and nine-man fronts, or you attack differently. There’s no question we’d like to be a much better running team, and much more balanced. We have a long way to go until we can achieve that.”

Gruden said all aspects of the Bucs offense must improve in order for the ground game to get going.

“We need to all get better,” said Gruden. “Coaching, playing — we all need to get better. Obviously, the play-caller needs to get more committed to it. But it’s an all-encompassing matter. It’s tight ends; it’s double teams; it’s fullbacks; it’s backs; it’s wide receivers blocking; it’s an all-encompassing approach from our offensive football team. It’s a mindset. It’s going out there in your third-and-ones and making them, physically making it happen. We have to continue to work hard to get better at that.”

Bucs rookie wide receiver Michael Clayton continues to impress during his team’s lackluster season. Clayton hauled in four passes for 66 yards and scored two touchdowns during Sunday’s loss to the Panthers.

Clayton has caught a team-leading 78 passes for 1,107 yards and six touchdowns in 15 games. That TD total broke the franchise record set by Kevin House back in 1980.

Bucs head coach Jon Gruden expects Clayton to continue to develop as both a player and a leader on the football team next season.

“I do believe the gains that a second year player shows are tremendous,” said Gruden. “It is odd, strange that a rookie comes in and plays like Michael has played in the history of this league that I am aware of. Not many receivers in the last 30 or 40 years have come in and caught 80 balls for 1,200 yards, whatever he has. The leaps and bounds that a player makes in his second year, at least the ones I have been around, is tremendous. They understand how it is going to be. They understand how training camp is going to go. They’re in different mental condition. They are in different physical condition and they are in different status with the team. I assume Michael Clayton will blossom, not only as a football player, but as a leader and as a guy that will give us, as an offensive football player, a go-to, clutch guy in the clubhouse and in-between the lines. We are encouraged by what he is and what he is going to do here.”

Bucs head coach Jon Gruden on safety Dwight Smith forcing two fumbles that were negated, and whether it took some wind out of the team’s sails:
“We haven’t had smooth sailing much this year, if you know what I mean,” Gruden said. “It has been kind of dead, calm water. We had a fumble right in front of our bench. We had five red jerseys surrounded by it and they get the ball back. We do get a turnover and unfortunately, it is negated by a neutral zone infraction. We are not getting good field position. I think we had 11 or 12 possessions. Outside of Torrie Cox’s kickoff return, every possession started inside our own 28-yard line. We need turnovers. Forget about our offensive miscues for a second, we need to generate turnovers, just like every other team in this league to win and consistently win.”

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