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Copyright 2006 PewterReport.com
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are not in an ideal situation. Facing a 0-3 start to the 2006 season and losing their starting quarterback, Chris Simms, to a ruptured spleen, head coach Jon Gruden must turn to rookie QB Bruce Gradkowski, the team’s sixth-round pick, to lead a sluggish and underachieving offense for the foreseeable future.
What Gradkowski lacks in experience, he makes up for in mobility and accuracy. Gradkowski was the first player in NCAA history to complete over 70 percent of his passes in consecutive seasons (71.2 percent in 2003 and 70.2 percent in 2004). The rookie from Toledo also has a certain moxie about him that was evident way back in high school when his passing yardage exceeded Pittsburgh conference records set by Johnny Lujack, Joe Montana, Jon Namath, Dan Marino and George Blanda.
In many ways, Gradkowski is Gruden’s ideal quarterback. Now it will be up to Gruden to utilize his new starter’s abilities. Pewter Report examines Tampa Bay’s QB situation and lists the ways Gruden can help Gradkowski put points on the scoreboard and stay alive, and what Gradkowski can do to be successful in Gruden’s offense. Let’s start with the Gruden analysis first.
STICK WITH THE RUNNING GAME Gruden is not a patient man. He knows that his offense is quarterback driven and has frequently shown a propensity to abandon the running game – or not even attempt to establish a running game – early in ball games.
Take the season opener against Baltimore for example. Gruden, Tampa Bay’s play caller, opened up the game with three straight passes against Baltimore (all three of Simms’ throws were incomplete), followed by four more passes out of the next six plays despite trailing only 7-0 in the first quarter.
Eight out of its next 11 plays were passes, despite only being down 14-0 early in the second quarter. That’s a total of 15 pass plays and just four running plays out of Tampa Bay’s first 19 offensive plays to start the Baltimore game. Trailing by two touchdowns at home with two and a half quarters remaining is not the time to abandon the running game.
Despite the ineffectiveness of Tampa Bay’s ground game through the first three contests of the year, Gruden will really need to try to have a balanced attack with a rookie QB leading his offense. Gruden’s goal – now more than ever – should be to patiently move the chains in a methodical manner.
He needs to do everything possible to get at least three yards per carry, which will set up makeable third-and-4 situations. With Gradkowski’s scrambling ability and 4.58 speed, the Bucs will finally have a run-pass option at quarterback. But Gruden must avoid putting his quarterback in less than ideal situations, such as third-and-10.
If Cadillac Williams is ineffective with his carries, or still bothered by back spasms, Gruden needs to turn to Michael Pittman or Mike Alstott and give them the ball. All three running backs bring different styles of play to the table. If Williams isn’t getting the job done, Gruden cannot get bogged down with his first-round draft status or his resume` that includes winning NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. He must deliver a ground game for Gradkowski and go with the hot rusher.
USE PLAY ACTION TO ATTACK THE SAFETIES Play-action passes are a great way to create hesitation among pass rushers and create big plays downfield in the passing game. Of course, play-action passes don’t work without an effective rushing attack, which is why establishing the run early in games will be important for both Gruden and Gradkowski.
Using play-action passes early in games will be most effective as defenses will be unsure if Tampa Bay’s ground game will actually get going or will get shut down. Gruden needs to call for at least play-action pass deep downfield. There is nothing that scares defensive backs more than the deep ball.
Putting that fear in the hearts of safeties in the first quarter will not only keep them away from the line of scrimmage, which should help open the running game, but it could also lead to a big passing play that could help build the confidence of a rookie quarterback like Gradkowski.
The risk of an interception is there on any pass play, but any turnover 40 yards downfield should be less dangerous than an interception thrown in the flat off a quick, three-step drop. Far too often those passes have been returned for touchdowns when picked off by opposing cornerbacks.
Gruden can’t let Gradkowski join the ranks of Simms and Brian Griese, who have each had multiple throws into the flat intercepted and returned for touchdowns over the past three years.
ESTABLISH THE INTERMEDIATE PASS Gruden’s offense is rooted in the West Coast offense that uses short passes off three-step drops as an extension of its ground game. Gruden has a tendency of trying to establish the short passing game early in games.
While the merit is worthwhile, that is typically when cornerbacks are playing the tightest coverage on receivers, evidenced by Carolina cornerback Chris Gamble’s interception of Simms’ first pass – a predictable quick out to wide receiver Joey Galloway – that set up the Panthers’ first touchdown.
If Gruden has Gradkowski throw some intermediate passes downfield to tight ends Alex Smith and Anthony Becht, or his receivers 10-15 yards downfield, the Bucs will have a much easier time coming back to the short, underneath passes once the cornerbacks back off the line of scrimmage for fear of getting beat deep.
Gradkowski is an accurate passer. He showed that at Toledo and in Tampa Bay during the preseason. Gruden needs to let him hit some intermediate passes early to keep the cornerbacks guessing.
USE GRADKOWSKI’S MOBILITY Aside from Gradkowski’s ability to scramble and pick up positive yardage, he is more effective on rollouts and bootlegs than Simms was because he is more athletic. Gruden’s play calling should take advantage of Gradkowski’s legs. Gruden always wanted a mobile QB – now he’s got one.
Third-and-short situations should feature Gradkowski on the move in run-pass options. He is not afraid to run with the football and needs to be put in position to be able to pick up positive yardage outside the tackle box in open space.
If the linebackers drop off in coverage and attempt to tackle Gradkowski, he simply throws the ball over them to his target. If the linebacker or safety stays in coverage, the former Toledo Rocket uses his legs to pick up the first down. The more Gruden gets Gradkowski on the edge of the defense in third-and-short situations the more likely the Bucs will convert those third downs due to his ability to run or throw.
When Tampa Bay is in obvious passing situations, Gruden needs to move the pocket occasionally so opposing defensive linemen don’t know where Gradkowski’s launching point will be. That will help the rookie stay upright and could lead to a big play downfield if the offensive line can buy Gradkowski time.
USE 5- AND 7-STEP DROPS Gradkowski operated away from center at Toledo, often out of the shotgun. At 6-foot-1, he is not a tall quarterback and could face the same batted ball situations that plagued Simms earlier this year if he is asked to throw too many quick passes from three-step drops.
Gradkowski is used to throwing from a deep pocket, so Gruden needs to play to his strength and incorporate more five- and seven-step drops than he may prefer.
KEEP PREACHING: SLIDE, SLIDE, SLIDE Gradkowski’s biggest fault may be the fact that he’s a Pennsylvania tough guy. At Toledo, he was used to making plays with his feet and scrambling for positive yardage. However, he rarely slid at the end of his runs.
Gradkowski would always barrel into defenders to finish his runs the way running backs would. The problem is that he’s not big enough to absorb the extra punishment he would receive from anxious linebackers and safeties, who would love to unload on a rookie QB who is 6-foot-1, 220 pounds.
Gruden and quarterbacks coach Paul Hackett must preach the slide whenever they have the rookie’s attention. They must preach it on the practice field, in the film room and on the sidelines. Sliding goes against Gradkowski’s competitive nature and he’ll need constant reminders. Tampa Bay has already lost one quarterback for an extended period of time due to injury, they can’t afford to lose another one.
KEEP HACKETT ON THE SIDELINES For the first time since his arrival in Tampa Bay in 2005, Hackett was on the sidelines for the Bucs-Panthers game. The reason was to be able to talk to Simms face-to-face, and to give Simms a break from Gruden’s sideline temper.
Gruden will likely not be as hard on Gradkowski as he was on Simms because Gradkowski is a rookie and less will be expected from him than Simms, who was a four-year veteran. Gradkowski is all that Gruden has right now, so the head coach knows he and the rookie need each other.
Hackett’s sideline presence will ensure that Gruden stays calm and Gradkowski gets tutored the right way.
GIVE GRADKOWSKI 4 GAMES Gruden isn’t the most patient person in the world, and having a young, rookie QB under center will certainly try his patience in what has already become a disappointing season, given the team’s 0-3 start. But Gruden must commit to giving Gradkowski at least four games.
Why is this important? Because Luke McCown will be ready to play against the New York Giants when he comes off the physically unable to perform list after Tampa Bay’s game versus Philadelphia. But the Bucs will have 10 games to play when McCown returns and there will be no need to rush him into the lineup unless Gradkowski is hurt.
While Gradkowski is a rookie, McCown only has four NFL starts under his belt, and he missed all of the preseason while rehabbing his ACL. Both McCown and Gradkowski are essentially in the same boat. Gruden needs to give at least four starts to Gradkowski and then reassess his performance when McCown is ready to go.
So what can Gradkowski do to play quarterback in the NFL this year without looking like a rookie? Based on Pewter Report’s evaluation of him at training camp and in the preseason, and what transpired during Tampa Bay’s first three games, the ball is – literally and figuratively – in Gradkowski’s hands after the bye week.
DON’T FUMBLE THE SNAP As elementary as it may sound, receiving the snap from center is the most important thing a quarterback can do. If he doesn’t, a costly turnover could easily occur.
Gradkowski did take quite a few snaps from center John Wade at training camp and the two players did have the luxury of the bye week to get reacquainted. The rookie will have a lot on his mind in his first couple of NFL starts, but Gradkowski must concentrate and get the snap from Wade before thinking about anything else.
WHEN THROWING, BE DECISIVE When asked what he needed to do to be successful when he gets his first start at New Orleans, Gradkowski responded, “Be decisive.” That’s the answer that Gruden and Hackett want to hear.
So why did Gradkowski say “Be decisive?” That’s all he heard in quarterback meetings for the first three weeks of the season while watching game film of Simms being indecisive too often. That indecisiveness contributed to to his seven interceptions and seven deflected passes at the line of scrimmage.
It’s a safe bet that Simms got quite a tongue lashing from Gruden and Hackett over his indecisiveness. It’s also a safe bet that Gradkowski was paying attention in those quarterback meetings.
When Gradkowski sees an open receiver he needs to fire his gun and let ‘er rip. On three-step drops and timing patterns, Gradkowski has to anticipate his receiver being open and trust his teammate to make a play once the ball is in the air.
When receivers get open in the NFL, the football should already be there. Quarterbacks can’t wait until receivers are open to make the throw. By then, a defensive back is already breaking on the ball.
GET YARDAGE WHEN YOU CAN Through the first three games of the season, Gruden was quite testy over Simms not using his feet to scramble and make some first downs when opportunities presented themselves. The problem was that Simms isn’t athletic and was never a scrambler. He’s a strong-armed pocket passer.
Gradkowski, on the other hand, is very mobile and he better be willing to tuck the ball and run if the play breaks down. That’s what Gruden wants him to do. Gradkowski showed the propensity to scramble in the preseason. He needs to do that – and slide when he’s done.
USE EVERY QB’s BAG OF TRICKS Every quarterback has the same bag of tricks they can delve into for help. That bag of tricks includes changing the cadence, the pump fake and looking off safeties.
Changing the cadence and using some hard counts can help slow down an opponent’s pass rush and draw defenses offsides for a free five yards. Gradkowski will have to be careful not to draw his own linemen offsides though as they may not be used to hearing his voice at the line of scrimmage.
Simms had a habit of staring down his receivers, which is something most young quarterbacks do. Looking off safeties and doing an occasional pump fake will help complete passes and avoid interceptions.
ALTER YOUR THROWING MOTION The 6-foot-4 Simms had seven passes batted down at the line of scrimmage, mainly because of a rigid, windup throwing motion. Gradkowski needs to alter his throwing motion to avoid having his passes deflected at the line.
Whether it is changing his release point, lofting a pass or throwing sidearmed, Gradkowski must be flexible when getting rid of the football.
ROOKIE MUST BE RESILIENT Gradkowski will throw interceptions, and fumble and lose games. Every young quarterback does. He just needs to have a short memory and keep fighting. Gruden and Gradkowski need to work together in the coming weeks to survive and thrive.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org
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