The Tampa Bay Buccaneers suffered a heartbreaking 26-24 loss to the Carolina Panthers Sunday at Raymond James Stadium, yet the Bucs, who fell to 0-3 on the season, breathed a sign of relief Monday after learning that quarterback Chris Simms was on the mend.

Immediately after the game concluded, Simms was rushed to St. Joseph’s Hospital in Tampa with a ruptured spleen he suffered sometime during Sunday’s game.

Simms, 26, underwent emergency surgery to remove his spleen, and he received a blood transfusion. Bucs head coach Jon Gruden updated the media at a press conference on Monday morning and said Simms was doing well.

“I visited with him this morning, and he’s going to be just fine,” said Gruden said of Simms. “He’s in good spirits. We’re just very fortunate and very happy that he’s going to be okay. His football career is in no jeopardy. There is a chance he could come back and play this year.

“The first thing he says [to me this morning] is, ‘I missed [Joey] Galloway on a go route on the five-yard line. He loves football. He loves it. He’s crushed emotionally right now that he’s not going to be able to continue to play. And that’s what he’s talking about, missing Galloway on a go route, disappointed we didn’t win the game. He’s obviously very frustrated and very disappointed that physically he can’t play.”

Exactly when Simms suffered the internal injury remains in question. Tampa Bay’s starting signal caller took a number of hits during Sunday’s contest, including one he received on a 2-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. With time winding down in the third quarter, play was stopped after Simms took a knee on the football field. Tampa Bay’s trainers and doctors tended to Simms and escorted him into the locker room for further evaluation.

According to Gruden, Simms wasn’t showing any signs of a ruptured spleen. He was administered a IV and came back onto the field in time for Tampa Bay’s next offensive series of the game in the fourth quarter.

“We thought he got hit in the ribs, and that’s what we checked him for when he went into the locker room,” Gruden said. “That’s what he was complaining about. Our doctors, our medical staff checked him carefully, his abdomen, his chest, and he showed no symptoms whatsoever of any spleen injury, of any bleeding or anything of that kind. So we felt he had a sore case of the ribs. Like many quarterbacks, like many football players, they’ve been able to push through it and finish a football game.”

The Bucs actually believe Simms suffered the ruptured spleen in the fourth quarter when he was drilled by Panthers defensive lineman Al Wallace near the goal line. Simms was slow to get up and was in obvious discomfort. Despite some deeming the hit ‘excessive,” the officials did not penalize Wallace on the play, but the Bucs feel the hit was unnecessary and suspect it directly led to Simms’ spleen injury.

“I do know he got hit early in the football game and was complaining about his ribs,” said Gruden. “We checked him on the sidelines, as I say. We checked him in the third quarter when he went into the locker room and all signs were negative. I believe he got hurt late in the football game – that’s what we’re pointing to – on a bootleg situation down around the nine-yard line.

“That last hit on Chris Simms I felt was roughing the passer,” said Gruden. “I really felt that was roughing the passer. I believe the hit he took late in the game, if you look at the tape, is what caused the injury we’re talking about.”

To his credit, Simms, who had thrown six interceptions and no touchdowns heading into Sunday’s game, returned to the football field and rallied his team back from a 17-0 deficit to take the lead twice on the Panthers in the second half. After starting the game 1-of-6 with an interception that led to a touchdown for the Panthers in the first quarter, Simms finished the game completing 13-of-24 passes for 139 yards and tossing one touchdown and running for another.

Simms’ teammates suspected their starting quarterback was not right health-wise during Sunday’s game, but his willingness to play through injury, and his ability to engineer three scoring drives in the second half, convinced them that Simms was well enough to play.

“In the huddle he was gasping for air,” Bucs wide receiver Michael Clayton said of Simms. “He’d call part of the routes and then gasp for air, and then he’d finish it. He was a little slow in the huddle, and everybody would be like, “Chris, are you okay?’ But then we’d get the momentum going and we figured he was okay. To see what he was actually going through and hear about it afterwards, your hat really goes off to the guy.”

Simms was on the minds of most people that walked in the doors of One Buc Place as they followed the developing story of his emergency surgery on television and/or read about it in different media outlets. However, one player – Bucs defensive end Simeon Rice – learned of Simms’ injury and condition when the media began asking him questions about it on Monday morning.

“Damn, that’s crazy,” Rice said upon learning of what happened to Simms. “I had no clue what was going on. I’ve got to talk to Chris before I even say anything more about it.”

Simms had already won over his teammates before Sunday’s game. That was obvious by the fact that he was voted a team captain earlier in the year. However, Gruden believes Simms should have silenced any critics who questioned his “toughness” as an NFL quarterback.

“There have been people out there who have questioned his toughness, and those people hopefully were silenced yesterday,” said Gruden of Simms. “He showed a tremendous amount of grit. It’s been a tough few weeks for us, for him personally. Not only did he show tremendous physical toughness, but he showed tremendous mental toughness yesterday. Behind 17-0, he brought our team back, gave us the lead twice, and it’s a credit to him. I’m really proud of him.”

Simms will remain hospitalized for several more days, and rookie QB Bruce Gradkowski was named the starting quarterback Monday while Tim Rattay has been promoted to the No. 2 role. Even though there’s a slight chance Simms could return to action during the final quarter of the 2006 regular season, Simms’ season likely is over. With 2-3 months of recovery time in front of Simms, the Bucs want to make sure they give their quarterback a chance to rebound from surgery before they ask him to help the team rebound from their disappointing start to the ’06 season.

"My information tells me that potentially he is out for the season because of the injury of this magnitude,” said Gruden. “To do the right thing, it might not be wise to ask him to come back and play in Week 13 or 14. Those are thoughts that are in my mind, to make sure this man heals correctly and has a chance to come back and play at full speed like he’s capable of playing.”

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