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Here are some things that caught my attention this week:
FAB 1. Jon Gruden’s new flavor of the month at the quarterback position is Luke McCown. So what’s new?
If you are a quarterback that has a pulse on the Buccaneers roster, chances are Gruden has fallen in love with you before.
Chris Simms was the object of Gruden’s affection in 2004 after he broke off his relationship with Brad Johnson less than two years removed from the Super Bowl. When Simms got hurt in his first start in New Orleans, Brian Griese came to the rescue and threw one touchdown and completed 84.2 percent of his passes to earn Gruden’s praise.
When it was Griese’s time to get hurt (as quarterbacks always do in Tampa Bay) in 2005, Simms stepped in for Griese, who was placed on injured reserve with a torn ACL, and led the Bucs to a 5-1 record in the NFC South and a trip to the playoffs. Simms was again Gruden’s guy.
Then after Simms struggled and lost his spleen at the start of the 2006 season, rookie sensation Bruce Gradkowski stepped in after an impressive preseason and started 11 games for the Bucs, producing a 3-8 record. The bloom came off Gradkowski’s rose rather quickly, following a tremendous preseason in which he beat out veteran Tim Rattay for the backup job behind Simms.
After lauding Gradkowski with praise last preseason and during his trying rookie year, Gruden’s comments about Gradkowski have been much more tempered this summer. The reason is because he is on the McCown bandwagon.
McCown is actually getting his second wave of buzz in his stint with the Bucs. Pewter Report subscribers will recall in the spring of 2006, prior to his ACL injury, McCown was featured in our May issue in an article called, “Elevators,” which profiled a couple of Buccaneers who were generating some buzz during the offseason. McCown was positioning himself for a run at the backup job behind Simms before he went down with a knee injury that caused him to miss training camp, the preseason and the first six weeks of the 2006 season while on the PUP (physically unable to perform) list.
Both Bucs players and coaches told Pewter Report that McCown’s loss was actually a big one last summer as he was playing well and had some impressive performances in the team’s OTAs.
Thirteen months removed from his torn ACL, the 6-foot-3, 212-pound McCown is back to his scrambling ways without any ill effects from his injury. And he is back in the mix for the backup job – this time in front of Simms instead of behind him. While Simms has struggled mightily and Gradkowski has been average in camp, McCown has put together a week’s worth of solid performances and earned more reps than he’s ever received before.
It appears that the only thing between he and Jeff Garcia is well, McCown himself. It may be hard to believe, but if he doesn’t screw up and performs well in the preseason, McCown, who has just four NFL starts (from his days in Cleveland), could be poised to enter the 2007 season as the Bucs’ backup, followed by Gradkowski.
The last time we saw McCown was in the 2005 preseason in which he completed 27-of-42 passes (64.3 percent) for 261 yards with two touchdowns, including a 45-yarder to Paris Warren, and two interceptions. McCown’s scrambling ability was on display, evidenced by his six carries for 48 yards (6.8 avg.), including a 19-yard run, but so was his indecision as he was sacked a total of seven times. McCown finished the preseason with a QB rating of 77.6.
Here are a couple of other interesting facts about Gruden’s new flame. It was actually quarterbacks coach Paul Hackett who stood on the table for McCown on draft weekend when Tampa Bay traded a sixth-round pick to Cleveland for McCown’s rights. Hackett holds an awful of influence with Gruden and he undoubtedly has been behind McCown’s surge up the depth chart.
The Bucs are intrigued with McCown’s athleticism. Did you know that McCown, whose brother is Oakland quarterback Josh McCown, might be the most athletic player on the Buccaneers roster? Ask any Bucs player who the best athletes are on the team and McCown’s name will always been in the top three no matter who you ask.
Before his ACL injury, McCown ran a 4.5 in the 40-yard dash and could probably turn in a similar time today. He is also a gifted basketball player, and possesses the ability to just pick up a golf club, a bat or a tennis racket and excel in those sports. That’s how naturally athletic he is.
It appears that both Gruden and Hackett have come to the conclusion that Simms is very rusty 10 months after his splenectomy and isn’t destined to make the team this year. That’s why Simms is getting very limited reps this camp, aside from his sore elbow, and why McCown is taking the same amount of reps as Garcia is. It appears that the Buccaneers have concluded that Simms isn’t a great fit for this offense, which is something I have been saying for years.
Gruden and Hackett expect more from Gradkowski, who has 11 NFL starts under his belt – just five less than Simms. They have witnessed Gradkowski make some questionable decisions in training camp, such as not audible out of a run into an unblockable defensive front, and miss open receivers.
That’s why McCown is the new flavor of the month – he hasn’t really screwed up yet. When he does, Gruden may fall back in love with Gradkowski or another QB who isn’t even on the team yet. Of course, Garcia will always remain number one in Gruden’s heart this season – as long as he is still upright, of course.
FAB 2. If Luke McCown’s stock is on the rise at Buccaneers training camp that means that a quarterback’s stock has to be falling as there is only room for 53 Bucs on the active roster, including three QBs. That quarterback, of course, is Chris Simms.
The St. Petersburg Times is still trying to sell you on the notion that he has proprioception, which is “the unconscious perception of movement and spatial orientation arising from stimuli within the body itself, according to the American Heritage Stedman’s Medical Dictionary.”
Or symptoms of proprioception.
Or symptions of irregular proprioception (the Times keeps changing its prognosis every day it seems).
The Times’ next diagnosis will be: faint traces of symptoms related to – but not directly – irregular proprioception.
I call it rustiness and being out of rhythm because that is what Simms has indicated he has, and I have yet to find any team source that will say that Simms has been diagnosed with proprioception. Yes, sometimes this team doesn’t always shoot straight, but I happen to think that Simms is one of the most honest guys in that locker room. He’s a man of integrity and when he looks you in the eye and says he’s rusty, he’s rusty.
Of course this goes back to his spelenectomy, which only happened 10 months ago. He’s had a severe upper torso injury and he has to find his timing the same way a quarterback who is coming off a torn labrum, a torn rotator cuff or a elbow surgery must.
Let’s face it. Simms hasn’t always displayed great timing as a Buccaneers quarterback, and I’ve already heard a few jokes at training camp saying that he must have had proprioception at the start of 2006, evidenced by the fact that he threw only one touchdown pass against seven interceptions.
Unless Simms lights it up in the preseason – and he hasn’t given anyone who has watched all of these training camp practices any reason to believe that will happen – he’ll be among Tampa Bay’s final roster cuts. With Luke McCown positioning himself for the backup job with a solid camp, there is not any room for a rusty quarterback who has yet to prove that he really has a grasp of executing this offense with the necessary precision despite being in it for five years.
The sad reality is that there will be a columnist or two, and somebody on sports talk radio who will somehow view Simms’ release as “another coldhearted and ruthless move by an evil Buccaneers front office that is headed up by Jon Gruden and Bruce Allen.” And there will be some blind fans that will actually agree. The columnists will howl that “Simms gave his spleen for this team and all he gets is a pink slip!” as the anti-Gruden and Allen crowd will grab their pitchforks and torches.
If you are among those Bucs followers who has actually gone out and purchased a pitchfork or a torch, I’m not saying not to use them. I’m saying not to use them over Simms’ release.
If Simms were to get cut like I think he will, no one will be at fault here. Somehow the flame-throwers on sports radio and in the newspapers will forget that it was actually the Buccaneers who showed the most faith in Simms by signing him to a two-year contract in December instead of waiting until March when free agency started.
It was also the Bucs that showed the respect for Simms when signing Jeff Garcia to a near identical contract on the second day of free agency. Because of the contracts, it was clear that Gruden had intentions of Garcia actually competing with Simms for the starting job this year (although you and I both know that if it ended up as a tie, Garcia would be the winner due to his playing experience and the fact that Gruden needs to win now).
Simms isn’t living up to his part by being unable to shake off the rustiness, but being 10 months removed from losing an internal organ, that’s not his fault, either. Simms’ eventual release is an unfortunate circumstance waiting to happen.
Remember, Pewter Report has maintained through the years that Simms was never a Gruden draft pick in 2003 – he was a Rich McKay draft pick that was forced on Gruden because McKay ran the draft in 2003 as general manager. To Gruden’s credit, he has tried to make this relationship work, even though Simms is not a great fit for the West Coast offense – another aspect that Pewter Report has been on record as saying, dating back to 2005.
Gruden opted to put Simms in for Brad Johnson in 2004 and gave him the first crack at being the Bucs’ new quarterback instead of Brian Griese. In 2005, Gruden saw Simms go 5-1 in the NFC South and guide the division champions to the playoffs and let him head into 2006 as the unquestioned starter.
Little did Gruden or Simms know that the Washington Redskins had exploited Simms’ weaknesses – a slow windup and a deliberate delivery – in the Wild Card playoff loss by picking off two of Simms’ passes and batting down a handful of others at the line of scrimmage. Baltimore, Atlanta and Carolina would follow suit to open up the 2006 season against Tampa Bay.
Simms is a likable guy. I like him and admire him. I think he has a chance to be a good quarterback in the NFL one day if he can find his rhythm again. I think Simms is better suited to play in a Mike Martz-style vertical offense that is based more on five- and seven-step drops that could take advantage of Simms’ arm strength, than Gruden’s offense, which is predicated on three- and five-step drops.
In Tampa Bay when you see Garcia, McCown and Bruce Gradkowski in practice, all three are right-handed, mobile and are between the range of 6-foot-1 to 6-foot-3. The 6-foot-4 Simms stands out like a sore thumb because he is left-handed and rather immobile. That will also help to make Gruden’s decision a relatively easy one when it comes to the roster cutdowns.
Simms has been in this offense for five years and under the influence of quarterbacks coach Paul Hackett for the last three and has yet to really prove that the light bulb has come on. It hasn’t yet, evidenced by the fact that he is 0-4 in his last four starts dating back to the playoff loss to Washington and has thrown one touchdown pass and nine interceptions and had about a dozen batted balls over that span. And that was before he lost his spleen.
Having the rust from his splenectomy clearly isn’t helping Simms right now, but you can’t expect Gruden to keep an inaccurate Simms around because of sentimental reasons, because he’s a nice, handsome guy or because of loyalty. Loyalty doesn’t win games in the NFL. Players who are on top of their games win games in the NFL. Unfortunately for Simms and the Buccaneers, he doesn’t fit that bill right now.
FAB 3. Tampa Bay’s 2007 draft class could turn out to be one of the franchise’s better groups of rookies. There appears to be a lot of promising talent in this class, and at least three of these players should wind up starting within the next two years – if not more.
Here is my analysis and ranking – in order – of each one of the Buccaneers’ rookies through 10 days of training camp:
1. SS Sabby Piscitelli – Piscitelli was definitely Tampa Bay’s best rookie during the first week of training camp. He grabbed at least four interceptions in the first week and was the team’s top interceptor. Piscitelli has done a great job in coverage and against the run displaying great speed and a willingness to hit. It’s still early, but you get the feeling that it won’t take Piscitelli long to unseat Jermaine Phillips and win the starting strong safety job.
2. LG Arron Sears – Sears has split time with Anthony Davis at left guard and has taken some starting reps during a few practices. He has lived up to his billing when it has come to run blocking. Sears is a massive, road-grader that can really move the pile in the running game. He will need to work on his pass sets, especially picking up stunts and blitzers.
3. DE Gaines Adams – Adams has flashed some pass rush ability, but his technique against the run is pretty raw. He must do a better job anchoring against blockers and maintaining gap integrity. Adams is okay disengaging from blockers and chasing the play laterally, but has struggled when the ball is coming at him. There have been too many instances where he has been taken for a ride backwards – past the linebackers – by a tight end or an offensive tackle. The preseason games will tell us if Adams is closer to Simeon Rice or Eric Curry. He has been bothered by a triceps strain, which has caused him to miss a few practices.
4. FS Tanard Jackson – Jackson has struggled a bit defending the deep ball, but the coaches are excited about him. The real test for Jackson will come with the pads on during the preseason games. He weighs less than 200 pounds and it remains a mystery how he will hold up in the running game and how he will match up in coverage against bigger tight ends.
5. OLB Adam Hayward – Hayward has benefited from sticking at outside linebacker all offseason. He has made strides in training camp and has shown good instincts against the run and the pass. Although the Bucs have yet to run any 3-4 in the open practices, both Hayward and fellow rookie Quincy Black have been doing pass rush drills with the defensive line and have performed well.
6. OLB Quincy Black – Black’s development has been hindered due to a position change. After practicing at middle linebacker during the offseason, Black has moved to strongside linebacker and basically switched spots with Ryan Nece. He has made some plays in training camp, but hasn’t been a consistent performer.
7. RB Kenneth Darby – Due to the fact that Earnest Graham has put the ball on the ground a few times this summer, Darby is in the mix for the third-string running back job along with Lionel Gates. Like Gates, Darby must make an impact on special teams to unseat Graham and win a roster spot. As a runner, Darby has had his moments where he has looked impressive, but there hasn’t been much to separate he, Graham and Gates. 8. CB Marcus Hamilton – Hamilton is a player that seems to be getting more and more comfortable with the Bucs’ coverages. He is starting to trust his instincts and not worry about making mistakes. Hamilton recorded his first interception in 11-on-11 drills on Thursday and is on the rise.
9. DL Greg Peterson – Peterson hasn’t stood out that much during training camp. He has split time between left end and under tackle, but hasn’t necessarily performed better inside or outside. While he has good size and athleticism, his technique is very raw and he has had problems with not keeping his feet moving. The fact that Peterson hasn’t made much headway at the under tackle spot, given the fact that the Bucs have unheralded players like Jovan Haye, Darrell Campbell and Ellis Wyms at the position is quite telling.
10. OL Chris Denman – Denman doesn’t have the footwork to play left tackle, so he has been relegated to playing right tackle and right guard in training camp. With second-year starting right tackle Jeremy Trueblood playing rock solid this year, and right guard Davin Joseph having an outstanding camp, Denman is fighting for a backup job. The problem is that second-year pro Donald Penn is outperforming the Bucs’ rookie, who seems destined for the practice squad.
FAB 4. After ranking Tampa Bay’s rookies, you are probably curious as to how the rookies are stacking up against the team’s veterans. Are any of the rookies among the top Buccaneers in training camp in 2007? The answer is no.
While some rookies have had good performances, Tampa Bay’s veterans are stealing the show at Disney’s Wide World of Sports. Here is a ranking of the top 10 Buccaneers during the first week of training camp and Pewter Report’s analysis:
1. DE Greg Spires – Spires has been unblockable at times. He is playing with a great deal of ferocity during training camp and has kept veteran Kevin Carter, who is also competing for the left defensive end starting assignment, at bay. Spires has definitely made right tackle Jeremy Trueblood a better player as a result.
2. CB Brian Kelly – Kelly has made a triumphant return to the Bucs’ starting lineup in camp. He is playing with a great deal of swagger and playmaking ability right now, and is showing no ill effects from his toe surgery in 2006. Kelly’s comeback is amazing considering how well Phillip Buchanon has played this summer. The fact that Buchanon is still in the nickel back role and has yet to beat out Kelly is a testament to Kelly’s dominance.
3. LB Cato June – June has played both strongside and weakside linebacker in training camp and has been a playmaker at both spots. He is the fastest linebacker on the team and has showed tremendous playmaking ability against the pass and the run. Not only will June be a starter at the strongside linebacker spot, he will almost undoubtedly stay on the field in nickel defense, too. June must prove that he is a sure tackler in the preseason.
4. WR Joey Galloway – Galloway has been limited to practicing only once per day due to his age, but when he has been on the field he has been simply electric. Despite being 35 years old, he is still the fastest Buccaneer on the roster and can outrun Tampa Bay’s speedy defenders. Not only has Galloway excelled in catching deep balls, but with Jeff Garcia’s fast release, he is getting the short out passes quickly enough to get a jump on defenders and make them miss. Turning short passes into long gains is what the West Coast offense is all about.
5. WR Maurice Stovall – Stovall has added some muscle and size to his 6-foot-5 frame, and doesn’t appear to be as lanky as he was as a rookie. He has displayed good hands in practice and is at least running neck-and-neck with Michael Clayton for the starting flanker (Z) receiver position, and may even be in the lead in the minds of coaches. Stovall is also participating on special teams on the punt rush team and has pleased the coaching staff with his unselfish play, not to mention the fact that he is always the last player off the field after catching passes for an extra 20 minutes after practice.
6. RG Davin Joseph – While Clayton and Cadillac Williams succumbed to a sophomore slump over the past two seasons, don’t expect Joseph to follow suit. Joseph has shown great mobility, technique and power in both the running game and in pass protection. The Bucs have been pulling Joseph a lot in the running game and getting him outside as a lead blocker on screen passes. He has easily been Tampa Bay’s best offensive lineman in training camp.
7. QB Jeff Garcia – Garcia is clearly head and shoulders above all other Buccaneers quarterbacks. Although Luke McCown has made a solid impression in the first week of training camp and has moved ahead of Chris Simms and possibly Bruce Gradkowski, Garcia still remains the leader of the pack. His mobility has kept plays alive and has accuracy has kept the ball in his receivers’ hands and not in the hands of the defensive backs. Garcia does have a good grasp of the offense and his decision-making skills have been superb.
8. MLB Barrett Ruud – Ruud started a bit slow in training camp, but has really come on lately and has become a playmaker against the run. He has fared well in pass coverage, but he still has a ways to go before he matches Shelton Quarles’ prowess against the pass. Ruud has great lateral speed and can chase down plays along the sidelines. If he has one challenge, it is that needs to be able to shed blockers.
9. RB Cadillac Williams – Williams has looked like the Cadillac of old. He may actually have looked better. On Thursday, Gruden said he has seen some “wicked cuts” from Williams during training camp. He isn’t kidding. Williams has shown great instincts, excellent agility and improving hands in the passing game. Williams, who is completely healthy, has worked hard to become a complete back and should be in for a big season.
10. DE Patrick Chukwurah – There is a lot of pressure on Chukwurah to make sure the Bucs don’t look foolish for cutting Simeon Rice. Pewter Report had Chukwurah ranked as the second-best Buccaneer this offseason and he hasn’t disappointed in training camp. He has played better than expected against the run and has displayed some good pass rush moves. However, Chukwurah’s best attributes may be dropping in coverage like a linebacker when the team goes to a zone blitz.
FAB 5. Here are some things that will hold you over until the next SR’s Fab Five:
• How will the Buccaneers spend the excess salary cap room that they now have due to the release of defensive end Simeon Rice? According to what Bucs general manager Bruce Allen said on check-in day, Tampa Bay has over $15 million in salary cap room. The team is in discussion with linebacker Jamie Winborn and running back Michael Pittman regarding contract extensions. Both Winborn and Pittman are scheduled to be unrestricted free agents in 2008. Sources have indicated that it is very early in the process and apparently not much progress has been made on either front regarding an extension.
• Does the fact that the Buccaneers are treating Luke Petitgout’s sore back with gingerly and with kid gloves concern you? It concerns me. What else concerns me is not just the left tackle position, but also the domino effect it creates at left guard with Anthony Davis. If Petitgout isn’t effective or limited due to injury, Davis will likely take over at left tackle again as he did in the 2005-06 seasons. Although Donald Penn has had a very impressive training camp, the team would likely trust Davis’ experience over Penn’s inexperience on Sundays. The thing that I worry about is left guard, where Davis was really feeling comfortable and putting a ton of pressure on rookie guard Arron Sears. The left guard battle was shaping up to become one of the best in training camp. How will Sears react with little or no competition? Neither Jeb Terry nor Dan Buenning appears ready to start at left guard and really challenge Sears. Will the rookie assume the job is his and stunt his own growth without Davis there pushing him? We’ll have to see as training camp rolls on. Unfortunately, early indications are that the Bucs have once again invested in a left tackle that may be damaged goods. But unlike the debacles with Todd Steussie, who just couldn’t play offensive tackle anymore, or Derrick Deese, who had foot problems from the start, the Bucs front office wised up and didn’t pay Petitgout a king’s ransom like it did when it overpaid for Steussie and Deese in 2004. I’m not saying Petitgout won’t start all 16 games and won’t be effective. I’m just saying that he isn’t making a great first impression by missing so much training camp time.
• Tampa Bay has yet to run any 3-4 defense in open training camp practices after running quite a bit of the defensive front in the team’s OTAs and mini-camp. It’s a safe bet that the team has run some 3-4 defense in the hotel ballroom when a few afternoon practices got rained out, though. In addition to the 3-4 schemes, expect defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin to deploy more zone blitzes out of the 4-3, too. Tampa Bay has a quartet of defensive ends in Patrick Chukwurah, Greg Spires, Kevin Carter and Gaines Adams that can effectively drop into pass coverage, which is a major component of the way Kiffin likes to zone blitz. After recording just 25 sacks last season, Kiffin is going to make sure the Buccaneers pressure the quarterback this year and isn’t just going to rely on Tampa Bay rushing four down linemen. Between the zone blitzes out of the 4-3 and the use of the 3-4 defense, Kiffin seems hell bent on getting after the quarterback this year and creating sacks and the interceptions that come with pressure.
• Speaking of Greg Spires and Kevin Carter, it is interesting to note that Carter has spent the majority of his practice snaps at left defensive end backing up Spires than at under tackle. I think the Bucs are trying to give unheralded players like Jovan Haye and Darrell Campbell the opportunity to win the job first, and then inserting Carter into the mix only if necessary. With both Spires and Carter over the age of 32, it will be good for the Bucs to rotate those high motor players at left end if possible and split the snaps between them. The result will likely be over 60 plays of fury per game for the opposing right tackle and neither Spires nor Carter should be spent by the time the fourth quarter rolls around. Carter may wind up starting at under tackle if Haye or Campbell just isn’t ready – because Carter has played the three technique before. But ideally, Tampa Bay wants Carter in a rotation with Spires at left end and then sprinkled up and down the line on a few plays in each game to create confusion for opposing offenses.
• Finally, I like how head coach Jon Gruden is planning on getting nickel cornerback Phillip Buchanon involved on offense at wide receiver. Buchanon may be the most athletic and explosive player on the team behind Joey Galloway. He has some amazing speed and agility that will likely be utilized on special teams, too. I wouldn’t be surprised if Buchanon not only plays nickel corner and a few snaps on offense, but also wins the punt and kick return jobs, too. Gruden seems to be pulling out all the stops on offense this year with Buchanon getting some looks on offense and all of the reverses and trick plays that Gruden is running in training camp. You get the sense that Chucky knows his back is against the wall and if he is going to go down, he’s going to do so swinging. If these gadgets work in the games like they have in practice against a much-improved Buccaneers defense, Gruden may not go down at all.
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Scott Reynolds is in his 25th year of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the vice president, publisher and senior Bucs beat writer for PewterReport.com. Author of the popular SR's Fab 5 column on Fridays, Reynolds oversees web development and forges marketing partnerships for PewterReport.com in addition to his editorial duties. A graduate of Kansas State University in 1995, Reynolds spent six years giving back to the community as the defensive line coach for his sons' Pop Warner team, the South Pasco Predators. Reynolds can be reached at: email@example.com