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The more we learn, the more we like this QB

Gradkowski is at his best with game on the line.

By GARY SHELTON
Published October 15, 2006


TAMPA — He can run it, and he can throw it. From the looks of it, he is on his way to embarrassing a lot of NFL scouts. Perhaps you already knew that about Bruce Gradkowski.

He throws up before his games, and he goes to church after them. In between, if the head coach wants to swear into his face, that’s all right with him. Perhaps you knew that already, too.

He is susceptible to looking like a rookie for large patches of time. And he is capable of erasing those shortcomings from his memory. Also, from yours. Probably, those are new bits of information.

With a new quarterback, the important thing is the processing of information. It is a matter of what the passer picks up, and in turn, what everyone else picks up about him. Another day, another lesson. That sort of thing.

On Sunday, class, we learned this about the kid running the offense of the Tampa Bay Bucs.

Turns out, Gradkowski has a bit of Rocky to him.

If the first start of Gradkowski was about the talent he showed, then the second was about his toughness. It was about the resilience of a kid turning a forgettable afternoon into a memorable won. It was about drama and flair and a knack for the game.

Surprise, surprise, it was also about the Bucs winning a game.

Gradkowski threw a fourth-down touchdown pass to Michael Clayton with 35 seconds to play Sunday afternoon, and the Bucs beat the Cincinnati Bengals 14-13, and just like that, nothing else seemed to matter. Not the missed chances. Not the times he showed his age. Not the eternal struggle for points.

When it mattered most, Gradkowski was at his best. And, really, what more can you ask of a quarterback?

“He showed me he’s got 'it,’ ” Ronde Barber said. “Whatever 'it’ is, he has it. He knows how to win.”

For much of the afternoon, Gradkowski looked like the quarterback you might have expected a week earlier. He missed some throws, he missed some looks. In the second quarter, in particular, he struggled. His quarterback rating for the period was 8.5.

Down the stretch, Gradkowski was a different player. Suddenly, all of Gradkowski’s decisions were good, and all of his passes were sharp. A tripping call that turned third and 3 into third and 13? No problem. Fourth and 3? A minor inconvenience.

Measure quarterbacks how you want. Talk about records or yardage or touchdowns. The difference-maker with the great quarterbacks, however, is how they perform in the minutes that matter. It is what made John Elway great, and Joe Montana. And Dan Marino and Roger Staubach and Brett Favre.

Elway had 47 comebacks. Gradkowski now has one.

In other words, he’s gaining.

“I think of myself as … 'never doubt me when the game is on the line and we’re behind,’ ” Gradkowski said. “I feel comfortable in my ability to make plays.”

Oh, he has done this a few times. Bruce Gradkowski Sr. sat in the back of the postgame news conference Sunday afternoon, waiting for his son to finish, and he ticked them off. Yeah, his kid can fight off of the ropes, all right.

Gradkowski has always been a quarterback for the final reel. When he was a sophomore at Toledo, he led his team from 10 points down in the fourth quarter to upset No. 9 Pitt. When he was a junior, his team came from behind to beat Miami of Ohio while Gradkowski played with a broken bone in his hand. As a senior, Toledo trailed Bowling Green 27-7 at the half before rallying to win.

“I love seeing (other quarterbacks) put together fourth-quarter drives and being clutch at the end,” Gradkowski said. “The most fun of the game is during the end. It’s such a blast.”

In two weeks, we have learned this much about Gradkowski. He seems to enjoy his work.

“He’s one of the most dynamic players I’ve been around,” coach Jon Gruden said. “He’s a live wire. He’s got a watch on his hand, a watch in his locker and he watches the clock on the wall, because he can’t wait to get out there and play. Our football team feeds on that.”

Flash back to a moment before the game, when he stood in the tunnel waiting to be introduced. Finally, it was Mike Alstott and him. Alstott was told to go first, that Gradkowski would be introduced last.

“I asked him, “Are you sure?’ ” Gradkowski said. “This is Mike Alstott. He and Derrick Brooks are the faces of the Tampa Bay Bucs.”

Alstott, who has been introduced a few times around here, told Gradkowski to enjoy the moment.

Enjoy the final one, too. Remember the way the official’s arms raised into the air when he decided that Michael Clayton would not be remembered along with Bert Emanuel and Edell Shepherd and the catches-that-never-were. Remember the relief of a team and the excitement of a sideline.

In the days ahead, there are going to be some harder lessons. Defenses will get more mysterious, afternoons will be more frustrating.

Two weeks in, however, and you have to like what the kid has learned.

Not to mention what the rest of us have learned about him.