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Simms takes the spotlight

The Buccaneers need second-year quarterback Chris Simms to spark one of the league's worst offenses.

By RICK STROUD
Published October 7, 2004

[Special to the Times]
Chris Simms, surrounded by reporters in the Bucs locker room, says, "I hope I can give us the spark we need."

TAMPA - Chris Simms stood by his locker at One Buc Place Wednesday, surrounded by microphones and blinded by the bright lights of television cameras. His first start in the NFL still is several days away, but the second-year quarterback didn't hide his excitement.

"I was ear-to-ear pretty much, smiling all day," Simms said about being told Tuesday he would start Sunday against the Saints. "I'm excited. ... It's a long way from being the last pick of the third round."

The Bucs also could use something to smile about.

At 0-4, Tampa Bay ranks next-to-last in the league in points and began the season with a streak of 11 quarters without a touchdown.

The 24-year-old Simms saw his first regular-season action in a relief appearance in the home opener against Seattle. But he is expected to replace 13-year veteran Brad Johnson for the remainder of the season. Johnson, 36, led the Bucs to a Super Bowl victory two seasons ago. But he has lost 10 of his last 13 starts, including six straight dating to last year.

"I hope I can give us the spark we need," Simms said.

"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."

Coach Jon Gruden did some hand-wringing before making the decision official Tuesday morning when he summoned Simms to his office before 11 o'clock. He told Simms "it's your team," before briefly going over a game plan for the Saints.

Johnson was unavailable for comment Wednesday. Gruden would not speculate on how the move will affect Johnson's future with the team, although it's possible the Bucs could try to deal him before the Oct. 19 trading deadline.

"It's a tough decision. I've got a lot of respect, obviously, for Brad Johnson," Gruden said.

"I don't want to make any disrespectful statements toward Brad. It's hard on me. We won a Super Bowl together. I've spent more time with Brad than I have with my own family. It's tough. But I'll say this, I expected to see (Charlie) Garner and (Michael) Pittman in Week 4 together, too. I expected to see (Joey) Galloway hammering it down the field with (Keenan) McCardell, (Joe) Jurevicius and (Michael) Clayton, too. I expected a lot of things differently than we are right now. I didn't expect to be 0-4, but I do like the way we're competing. I do like the way some of these young guys are emerging. That's why I'm excited."

Simms, the Bucs' third-round pick in 2003 and the son of Giants Super Bowl quarterback Phil Simms, saw his first regular-season action in a 10-6 loss to the Seahawks. He replaced Johnson after only 15 plays and led the Bucs to both field goals. An exuberant but inexperience Simms fumbled twice, losing one after being stripped by Grant Wistrom. He committed the other on the Seattle 1-yard line and forced his team to settle for a field goal. The Bucs' comeback ended when Simms, who was tripped and falling, threw a game-clinching interception.

"I was trying to do too much maybe from time to time," Simms said. "Just not taking the little things the defense gives you. I think the play that comes back to me from that game is probably my fumble when Wistrom hit me from behind. You know, it was third and 1, I just wish I had made that decision a half split earlier to take off and get that first down. It was 1 yard. Things like that, I know that experience helped me.

"I can't lie. My second year, I envisioned myself at least getting in there and getting some playing time."

It's uncertain whether Simms can turn around the Bucs, but his presence will change the play-calling. For starters, he's left-handed, meaning his linemen have to reverse some of their blocking schemes. And Simms' mobility will enable Gruden to dig deeper in his playbook for rollouts and naked bootlegs.

"The big thing is, let's get ourselves geared for a left-handed playbook and get used to catching a left-handed ball," Gruden said.

Simms isn't the first member of the quarterback class of 2003 to take over an NFL team. The Jaguars' Byron Leftwich, Ravens' Kyle Boller and Bengals' Carson Palmer are starters.

Winning consistently, however, has been a problem in the NFL for rookie and first-year quarterbacks. But Simms believes his work with Gruden gives him an edge.

"I feel like I know the offense real well. I feel like I've been coached real well," Simms said. "We have a great system and I feel if I can stay within that, I can be successful. The first name that always comes to my mind is (the Jets') Chad Pennington. I feel like he sat out two years, but came in and they were going from Day 1. I definitely feel I'm capable of doing that, it's just a matter of me going out and doing it now."

Simms said he will lean heavily on Johnson and Brian Griese, though Gruden declined Wednesday to name a No. 2 quarterback for Sunday's game.

"It's what comes with this business in the NFL," Simms said. "I know I learned at an early age watching my dad go through it with (Jeff) Hostetler that some days are just not going to be as good as others but you've just got to keep fighting and working hard."

Players reacted to Johnson's benching as you might expect. They said it was unfair to make him a scapegoat for the winless start. They also say Simms should not be considered the savior.

"If it is a move toward the future, than hopefully the future will be good," receiver Tim Brown said. "He needs to know that this season is not his to lose away. He just needs to go out and do his job and I think that's the most important thing. Don't get caught up in being a savor and "I have to go out and do this,' otherwise the team is not going to win."

Starting Simms may be a move for the future. But the former Texas star said the Bucs' aren't looking beyond Sunday's game.

"We're trying to win now," Simms said. "Who says we can't win four in a row? No one's given up."

[Last modified October 7, 2004, 00:30:24]

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