Rookie quarterback still has shot at No. 2

After two good games, Bruce Gradkowski found trouble Saturday.

Published August 29, 2006

TAMPA - Bruce Gradkowski could do little more than shake his head in disbelief.

How could this happen, he thought. After brilliant performances in the Bucs' first two preseason games, the rookie quarterback followed with a showing against Jacksonville that was marred by two interceptions, a fumble and two sacks.

This cocky, tough-nosed Pittsburgh native doesn't readily accept that kind of failure. It practically makes him sick.

"It really stinks because, in my mind, I don't even think there are games like this," Gradkowski said in the emptying locker room at Alltel Stadium. "I feel like every play is going to be a touchdown. I feel like every play we can score."

The Jaguars delivered a dose of reality, but the lesson is important. And, fortunately for Gradkowski, his last outing hasn't tainted his coach's high opinion of him.

"He's far and away ahead of any rookie quarterbacks that I've ever had," Jon Gruden said Monday, even after repeatedly watching film of the 29-18 loss to Jacksonville.

With that, Gruden made it clear that even the first setback of Gradkowski's career isn't enough to rule out making him the No. 2 quarterback behind Chris Simms.

"Why can't he be?" Gruden said.

"Take away four plays in this preseason, and he's a hell of a player. Everything's within his reach. We don't bring a guy in here and say, 'Hey, you're going to be the second-stringer or the third-stringer for the next six years. You're going to compete to play.' That makes Simms better, and it makes (the quarterbacks) all better."

The 23-year-old out of Toledo has made that possible by surpassing expectations for a sixth-round pick. And with news that Jay Fiedler - the planned No. 2 - isn't ready to be activated, Gradkowski is a step closer.

He played the whole second half Saturday as veteran Tim Rattay sat. In previous games, Rattay entered before Gradkowski.

Rattay was not told before the game that he would not play.

"Everybody just has to be ready to go," he said. "It just worked out where I didn't get in there."

Rattay said he has received no indication of his role. This much is certain: If Gradkowski has designs on the No. 2, he must play sharper.

"You can't turn the ball over," Gruden said.

Gradkowski, however, closed the game with an eight-play, 74-yard drive that lasted just 1:56. And one play after his 4-yard touchdown to J.R. Russell with nine seconds left was overturned on replay, he found Paris Warren in the end zone.

"I'm never going to put my head down and feel sorry for myself," Gradkowski said. "We finished well. We had one taken away, and we came back and threw another one.

"I wanted to say, 'Hey, can they count both of those?' "

Said Gruden: "I'm really impressed with him. He had a real eye-opener the other night. But what he did in the final drive says a lot about the guts and the resolve that he has."

The game will serve as a building block for Gradkowski. In the first two games, he threw three touchdowns and had a quarterback rating of 134.1. But he came back to earth against Jacksonville. Now he will focus on little things such as throwing the ball away rather than risking an interception. Slowly, it's becoming clear to him this isn't the Mid-American Conference.

"The NFL is maybe a little harder than I thought," Gradkowski said.

He arrived at the training facility Sunday, a day off for players, to watch his ragged performance on tape.

It wasn't easy.

"I hate watching it," he said. "I'm embarrassed about it. But it is really good that it happened. It just makes me (remember) that you have to take one game at a time.

"Coach is right. Throwing the ball away is not always as bad as it sounds. I just hate wasting plays like that. It's something to learn from and move on."

Now, if he can only convince Gruden he is ready, Gradkowski also might move up - on the depth chart.