While teams around the National Football League are preparing to make drastic cuts before the start of free agency on Friday, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers announced Wednesday that quarterback Chris Simms was under contract for the 2006 season.

Simms, who was scheduled to become a restricted free agent on Friday, signed the one-year, $2 million tender extended to him by the Bucs earlier in the week.

“We have been very confident that Chris would be back,” said Bucs head coach Jon Gruden. “I think Chris realizes that if he did not come back, that I would do everything I could do to haunt him for the rest of his life [laughing]. He has made gradual strides as a young player in difficult situations. We have not had any continuity whatsoever, to speak of, around him. We feel like with [running back] Carnell Williams, the return of [wide receiver] Michael Clayton, [tight end] Alex Smith, some of our young linemen, for the first time in a long time, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have players on the offensive side of the ball that grow together. Certainly, Chris Simms’ return is paramount in allowing that to happen.

“It doesn’t mean that we don’t want Brian Griese back, it doesn’t mean that we are not going to try to get [Patriots QB] Tom Brady in here. We are going to continue to try to get better and win championships here. To win championships, I do know that you have to have a great quarterback and today is a good start in that direction.”

Although the Bucs have expressed interest in bringing both quarterbacks back in 2006, Simms’ signing could bring Griese one step closer to being released unless general manager Bruce Allen and Griese’s agent, Ralph Cindrich, can come to terms on a restructured deal that would lower Griese’s $7.083 million cap value. The Bucs, who could be as much as $19 million over the cap, would free up approximately $4.55 million in cap room by releasing Griese, a move that could come on Thursday.

Even if Griese doesn’t return, Tampa Bay appears to be comfortable with Simms as its starter headed into the 2006 season. He completed 61 percent of his passes for 2,035 yards and tossed 10 touchdowns and seven interceptions en route to going 6-4 as a starter in place of the injured Griese last season.

After getting 11 starts under his belt last season and helping the Bucs win the NFC South division title, Simms, a 2003 third-round pick out of Texas, is confident in his abilities as the starter and the direction of his football team.

“It’s great going into offseason workouts just knowing that I am the starter and that the organization is looking at me,” said Simms. “Of course I’m extremely excited about that opportunity. I haven’t been in this position in a few years, since college really. I think again it just goes back to the direction our team is trying to go in right now. We’ve got a good nucleus and we’re just going to keep trying to build from there.

“I believe that this at least solidifies me. The way I played at least towards the end of the year. It’s a one year deal, I’m sure that the coaches would still like to see a little bit more out of me. I did only play 10 or 11 games last year, but had a good start and we’ll just keep it going next year.”

Simms had until April 21 to sign the contract tendered to him by the Bucs, but he elected to ink the one-year deal on Wednesday. For Simms, the decision to sign his contract early was easy.

“Well I think it goes back to what I told you guys from the start,” said Simms. “I’ve got some old school qualities to me. I want to be here for my whole career. I’ve always planned on that. I just like what we’ve got here. I don’t see anything better out there than what we’ve got right here. Like I said we’ve got a great coaching staff, we’ve got young guys like Michael Clayton, Cadillac, we’ve got the building blocks in place and I like our chances.”

By signing the one-year contract tendered to him, Simms earned himself a significant pay bump. He increased his base salary from $380,000 in 2005 to $2 million in 2006. With the one-year deal out of the way, both Simms and the Bucs are hoping to enter negotiations on a long-term deal once the team addresses some of its more pressing cap issues.

“It is a crack in the door, I will tell you that,” Simms said of his one-year deal possibly leading to a long-term contract. “We are peeking through, at least. Again, like I said earlier, in this league, it is a year-to-year thing. I have to go out there again and prove myself and hopefully continue to guide the ship in the right direction. All that stuff will come, but right now I am happy with what I have got and I am just going to worry about next season and all the other stuff will fall into place.

“I think this deal is good for the organization and good for me personally. Hopefully I’ll go out there this next year and be successful and maybe get a chance to really strike it rich next year.”

By signing Simms to a contract, Tampa Bay has blocked teams from acquiring the signal caller by offering him a long-term contract and giving the Bucs compensation in the form of a first- and third-round draft pick.

“They cannot sign Chris Simms now,” Gruden said. “He is a Buccaneer for this season and hopefully during this upcoming year we can work towards a long-term extension with him. I think Chris and I both understand the business well enough to know that this is a collaboration. We have to do everything we can as an organization to build our football team around our quarterback and that involves bringing in the right players, the right coaches to suit the style of our quarterback and we are going to try to bring in as many talented arms as we can to compete with Chris and we have all seen here in recent seasons that you never have enough quarterbacks because of the possibility of injury and what not. It is a great day for us and we are really excited about it.”

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