When second-year signal caller Chris Simms replaced Brad Johnson as Tampa Bay’s starting quarterback in the second quarter of the Bucs’ Week 2 contest against the Seattle Seahawks, one knew it was only a matter of time before that move became permanent.

The Simms era officially began Tuesday when Bucs head coach Jon Gruden informed the 24-year-old quarterback, who is the son of former New York Giants QB Phil Simms, that he would replace Johnson in the starting lineup for Sunday’s game in New Orleans.

“Well, it’s a long story and I don’t have time to get into it,” Gruden said Wednesday after practice. “It’s a tough decision. I’ve got a lot of respect, obviously for Brad Johnson. We’re going to give Chris Simms an opportunity to see if he can get us jump-started a little bit on offense. He’ll have great support from his teammates and from the staff, and Brad Johnson will have the same.”

Needless to say, Simms was excited when Gruden informed him of his decision.

“I was ear-to-ear pretty much, smiling all day,” said Simms. “I was extremely excited just to get a chance to practice all week, get some reps and get into a good flow for the game.”

Simms has been itching to get back on the field ever since he made his pro debut two weeks ago. In the Bucs-Seahawks contest, Simms completed 21-of-32 (65.6 percent) of his passes for 175 yards and threw no touchdowns and one interception. He also led Tampa Bay’s offense, which has scored 39 points and just three touchdowns in four games, on two 71-yard scoring drives, but those drives resulted in field goals, not touchdowns.

In addition to not getting the ball into the end zone, Simms made some costly mistakes. He had two fumbles and threw an interception late in the fourth quarter to erase what would’ve been a great come-from-behind win and officially signalled the beginning of the Simms era in Tampa Bay.

As it turns out, those mistakes just delayed it.

Although the Bucs lost that contest, Simms said he benefited from the playing experience, which should help him for the game against the Saints.

“That initial doubt won’t be there,” said Simms. “At least I’ll know I’ve been out here, been in this situation. I can do it. This time, I’ll be able to just go out and play.”

Johnson, 36, was unavailable for comment, but Simms said the veteran quarterback will help him be successful.

“Brad is always great with me,” said Simms. “We just had a walk-through out there and he helped me out with some key things. I’m sure as the week goes on he’ll help me a lot.”

Although the roster moves wasn’t announced as a permanent one, Johnson, who has thrown 14 touchdowns and 18 interceptions over the last 13 regular season games en route to a 3-10 record as a starter, including 0-4 this season, has likely seen his last action as a Buccaneer.

“Nothing’s permanent in life,” said Gruden. “But we’re going to give Chris every opportunity to be successful. We had a good start today, and I know Chris is eager to take advantage of this opportunity.”

Johnson, a two-time Pro Bowler that led the Bucs to their first-ever Super Bowl appearance and victory just two seasons ago, is signed through the 2006 season and his salary cap value is scheduled to go from $6.8 million this season to $8.55 million in 2005.

That cap figure, along with the fact that he will turn 37 next September, has most people convinced that Johnson will either be traded or released between now and next offseason. However, Gruden would not look beyond Sunday’s game against the Saints.

“I’m not going to get into all those questions right now,” Gruden said when asked about Johnson’s future. “I’m just going to say Brad Johnson will help us win this game. This is a stallion of a person and I still think he’s an outstanding football player. We’re going to New Orleans to try to win our first game. I don’t want to have any ‘career-decisional’ type statements here today. We’re just trying to get better and win our first game.”

As for the backup quarterback job, it’s apparently up for grabs.

“We’ll probably get into all that later in the week,” Gruden said. “Both guys will be prepared to play. The big thing is, let’s get ourselves geared for a left-handed playbook and get used to catching a left-handed ball. But both guys, Brian [Griese] and Brad will be ready to go and we’ll make that decision later in the week.”

Tampa Bay’s locker room didn’t seem surprised by the change at quarterback. In fact, some were anticipating it.

“You knew it was inevitable,” said Bucs safety Dwight Smith. “We didn’t draft Chris to have him just sit on the bench. We knew it would happen. As for when it would happen, that’s what we didn’t know.”

The Bucs used a third-round draft pick to select Simms out of the University of Texas during the 2003 offseason. Some pundits believed Simms would go in the first round that year, but he slipped to the Bucs, who had the final pick in the third round, and Simms has used that situation as a source of motivation.

But could Simms have possibly envisioned himself becoming Tampa Bay’s starting quarterback when the Bucs drafted him just three months after they had won a Super Bowl?

“I did. I can’t lie,” said Simms. “In my second year, I envisioned myself at least getting in there and getting some playing time. Did I think I’d get my first start this quickly? I don’t know. But it’s here, and nonetheless I’m ready. It’s a great day. It’s a long way from the last pick of the third round. I’m excited to get out there and show everybody what I’ve got.”

After stringing together two impressive training camps and two solid preseason outings, Gruden said Simms deserves the chance to be the Bucs’ starting signal caller.

“He’s paid a price,” Gruden said of Simms. “I give Chris Simms a great amount of credit — every day since the season ended last year he’s been here, working on his game.

“I think Chris is a bright prospect. I just think, right now, this is a good time for him to showcase where he is to all of us, and I’m excited about that.”

No one knows for sure if Simms’ presence in the starting lineup will translate into touchdowns for the Bucs’ woeful offense, but he does have some attributes that Gruden welcomes to his version of the West Coast offense, including a strong arm and mobility. Those two attributes could add another dimension to Gruden’s offense.

“The plays will be different,” Gruden said. “Hopefully, the execution is the thing that improves amongst all of us. But Chris is a different kind of quarterback. He’s left-handed, he’s probably got a little bit more mobility, he doesn’t have the experience that Brad Johnson has. There will be some things that we do try to emphasize with Chris, certainly.”

In addition to those things, Simms brings a rapport with rookie wide receiver Michael Clayton, who is Simms’ roommate for road games and has been arguably Tampa Bay’s best offensive weapon through four games this season.

“He’s a smart guy and he knows his stuff,” Clayton said of Simms. “We spend all night going over plays. Nothing’s going to change. It’s a good situation. He’s a young guy, he’s my roommate and we talk all the time. I’m just looking forward to a bright future and making some great things happen with him.”

Simms knows the Bucs aren’t asking him to be their savior. Instead, they’re hoping he can just manage the offense and make some plays that will help translate into touchdowns, which is something Johnson evidently didn’t do enough of.

“I just hope I can go out there, be a good leader and give a little energy to the offensive group, and try to make a play here and there,” said Simms. “Hopefully, we can give the offense some life and maybe get an easy touchdown instead of working so hard like we have been to get them.”

At 0-4, some would say the Bucs are writing off the season by putting an inexperienced quarterback in the starting lineup, but Simms’ teammates seem to be taking a wait-and-see approach.

“We don’t know where Chris is in his development,” said Smith. “We don’t know if he’s going to take us to 12-0 or if he’s going to take us to 6-6. We really don’t know. But this defense is behind him and this team is behind him. Hopefully he can help us get some wins.”

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