Paul Hackett has been around the NFL block more than a few times. He’s coached for everyone from Tom Landry to Bill Walsh.
One thing he knows about quarterbacks is that a team is only as good as their backup.
“David Krieg played when Joe Montana got hurt,” Hackett said. “Rich Gannon played when Elvis Grbac got hurt on the two best teams that I ever coached on and they both won 13 games. They had to win games. You have to win games with somebody else.
“How many people go through a season, unless you’re Brett Favre, and have two or three critical wins be made by a backup quarterback? It’s the way the game is.”
That’s the situation Tampa Bay faces if Jeff Garcia cannot play on Sunday. They’ll have to turn to their backup quarterback.
But which one does Tampa Bay turn to? That’s the question.
In one corner is second-year backup Bruce Gradkowski, who started 11 games last season and relieved Garcia last Sunday. In the other is Luke McCown, who hasn’t started a game since Dec. 26, 2004, during his rookie season.
Who do you start? That’s the burning question no one wants to answer right now.
“All three of us are getting ready to go,” McCown said.
“The ball is in coach’s court, whatever he decides,” Gradkowski said.
“We’ll expect Jeff to play and for the time being we’ll get the other guys ready to go,” Gruden said.
The decision could drag into Sunday, which will lead to speculation all this week.
If it’s one of the backups each brings something different to the table.
Gradkowski has fewer years in the NFL than McCown but has more starts — 11 in all. Plus he’s been the backup most of this season. He is a reasonably accurate quarterback (54 percent last season) with Garcia-like mobility. But he’s less elusive in avoiding sacks and threw as many interceptions (9) as touchdowns (9) last year.
Plus, there’s a perception that he hasn’t progressed since last year. He went 9-of-19 for 106 yards in Garcia’s place last week. But he failed to lead the offense to a first down in the second half, prompting Garcia’s return. Plus, he badly missed Joey Galloway on a deep pass that could have given the Bucs a touchdown.
While Hackett was happy with Gradkowski’s overall game — he didn’t commit a turnover — he was disappointed to see him miss some key plays.
“My goodness gracious, there were a half a dozen plays you would love to think that at this stage he would make those plays,” Hackett said.
McCown’s biggest debit is his inexperience. He made four starts his rookie year in Cleveland in 2004, but he didn’t throw another regular-season pass until this season’s opener against Seattle, when he went 1-of-4 for 9 yards in two possessions.
He missed all of last season with a knee injury, and that injury in all likelihood ruined McCown’s chance at starting when Chris Simms suffered his season-ending injury.
But McCown possesses the same mobility as both Gradkowski and Garcia. He’s slightly taller than Gradkowski (6-foot-3 to Gradkowski’s 6-foot-1). Plus, McCown is regarded as having a stronger arm, which could be key in stretching defenses and taking advantage of Galloway’s speed.
McCown had a fine preseason, going 36-of-50 for 394 yards, 4 touchdowns and an interception. But, then again, so did Gradkowski.
Hackett has been a fan of McCown’s since he saw the fourth-year pro’s draft tape and lobbied the Bucs to deal for him from Cleveland during the 2005 Draft.
What he sees is a quarterback that just needs a chance.
“His first start in pro football — check it out,” Hackett said. “It was against the New England Patriots. How about the snowstorm up in Buffalo?”
Whoever it is that starts, everyone agrees they’ll have it easier than Gradkowski had it last week. The backup doesn’t get practice reps during the week under Gruden, and both backup should see at least 50 percent of the reps.
“It’s tough (when you’re the backup) because during the week you don’t get any reps,” Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. “The starter gets them all. So when you come off the bench it’s like you’re going off film study during the week, but not the reps because you haven’t gotten any. That can be a tough situation and it forces you to really focus and play what you see. Reps throughout the week are so important. It’s like playing the game before you play it.”
Given the track record of each quarterback, Gruden’s decision may come down to his comfort level with both quarterbacks, and only he can gauge that. Hackett said the backup that eventually earns the confidence of the coaching staff will be the one that “slams the door shut” when opportunity comes their way. That’s something Gradkowski failed to do last week as he was only able to turn four Redskins turnovers into a touchdown and three field goals, a total the coaching staff found unacceptable.
That’s what Hackett said he’s preached to both as they prepare this week — opportunity.
“I tell them both, ‘At some point along the way you’re going to get a chance, and how you prepare yourself to get that chance is the key,’” Hackett said. “What you don’t want to do is sit there and say, ‘Oh (expletive deleted), I lost my chance.’ It’s his time now. One of these guys has to step up.”
About the candidates
Statistics (career): 201-of-341 passing for 1,791 yards, 9 touchdowns, 10 interceptions; (2007) 13-of-24 passing for 130 yards, 0 touchdowns, 1 interception.
The lowdown: Scouts liked Gradkowski’s accuracy coming out of college and he’s been reasonably accurate during his brief NFL career (54 percent). He’s also considered a great mobile quarterback and solid at picking up defensive fronts. … Scouts point to his arm strength as a major debit, especially with a deep threat like Joey Galloway. Gradkowski also tents to get “happy feet” when flushed from the pocket and doesn’t set himself well when he throws on the run. A start on Sunday would be the 12th of his career. He made his NFL starting debut last year at New Orleans, going 20-of-31 for 225 yards and two touchdowns, which turned out to be his best performance of the season.
Statistics (career): 49-of-102 passing for 617 yards, 4 touchdowns, 7 interceptions; (2007) 1-of-4 passing for 9 yards, 0 touchdowns, 0 interceptions.
The lowdown: McCown, like Gradkowski, is a mobile quarterback who can be successful in designed rollouts and bootlegs. He also has better arm strength than Gradkowski and is better able to make the downfield throws. Where McCown lacks is experience. He only has four NFL starts, all for a horrible Cleveland team in 2004. He missed all of 2006 with a knee injury, but appears fully recovered. He’s coming off a great preseason in which he completed 36-of-50 passes, but preseason play is never a good indicator of regular-season performance. It’s unclear how well McCown can read the complex coverages he would see in a regular-season game.
— Matthew Postins
Want the inside scoop on the Buccaneers, from locker room updates to insider information on free agency and the NFL Draft? Click here to subscribe.
Listen to Bucsblitz.com’s Matthew Postins every Tuesday with former Buccaneers linebacker Scot Brantley on WHBO 1470 ESPN Radio in Tampa and Clearwater from 3-6 p.m. If you miss the show, check out Bucsblitz.com’s exclusive team media center for Postins’ archived appearances.
Matthew Postins covers the Buccaneers for Bucsblitz.com and the Charlotte (Fla.) Sun-Herald. He is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association, and his coverage of the Buccaneers has won numerous state and national awards.