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He has come so far -- now he must go long
By GARY SHELTON
Published November 14, 2006
CHARLOTTE, N.C. - The future is far away, but it's moving fast, and appears wide open.
The question is this: Can the quarterback reach it?
Six starts in, and there is much to like about Bruce Gradkowski, kid quarterback. He is tough, and he can run, and if his coach wants to swear into his face, he doesn't seem to mind. Still, there are things he still must prove.
Alas, if Gradkowski is to last long as the quarterback of the Bucs, he must first learn to pass long.
In the evolution of a quarterback, this is the next thing the Bucs need to see. Gradkowski has to show he has a little more range in his rifle. He has to be able to throw it to the other side of the defense. After all, that's where the points are.
For most of the year, Gradkowski has struggled to throw the deep ball, but it was never more obvious than Monday night, when the Bucs had a chance to step on the neck of the Carolina Panthers. Gradkowski and the opportunity could not connect.
Twice, Joey Galloway was running open. Once, it was Michael Clayton. Instead, Gradkowski came up with two interceptions, an incompletion and the next thing for Bucs fans to vex over. Does Gradkowski have enough arm to throw the deep ball? Does he have enough feel?
In a way, playing quarterback in the NFL is like being a professional golfer. A great short game will keep you around, but every now and then, you have to crank it a long way.
For all the things Gradkowski has shown - and, yeah, you have to grade a rookie on the curve - he is not yet feared in the deep. Consider this: Going into Monday night's game, Gradkowski had completed 98 passes; 92 of those had been for less than 20 yards.
For six games, he has been a nibbler. Perhaps it is because Bucs coach Jon Gruden has harped so often about not turning the ball over, but Gradkowski has erred on the side of caution. At times, he has appeared to be in such a hurry to complete a short pass, he has not given the play a chance to develop into something more.
Against the Panthers, he had a chance to change that impression. The Bucs came out aggressively, and in the first half, they had a chance to build a serious lead.
On the Bucs' first possession, Galloway was loping 10 yards behind the secondary, but Gradkowski's throw was wide and long. Two minutes before halftime, Galloway was running deep again, but Gradkowski threw short and was picked off again. Just before halftime, Gradkowski had Clayton open deep, but this time, he overthrew it.
At least this time, Gradkowski was trying to stretch the field. If he had an interception problem his first five starts, it was that he didn't risk them nearly enough.
Granted, you have to be careful before you chide a quarterback for being too careful, but there is such a thing as playing too safe. It is a fine thing not to throw an interception on third and 9; on the other hand, a 2-yard completion only helps so much.
Remember, Gradkowski is not just playing for this year; he's auditioning for next year, too. If he wants to convince the Bucs not to invest in a veteran quarterback next offseason, he's going to have to dial long distance with a little more proficiency.
In the glimpses we have seen, there are some likeable things about the kid. And while Matt Leinart and Vince Young aren't going to offer to exchange paychecks, Gradkowski has compared quite nicely. Gruden, in particular, seems to see some magic in Gradkowski, as if he sees a glimpse of himself in there.
What do we know about Gradkowski? We know this:
So far, he's better in the second half than the first. Perhaps some of that is nerves. In his first 10 passes of each game, Gradkowski is completing only 48 percent. (He hit 6 of 10 Monday night, a bit of an improvement.)
So far, he is better on third down than on first down. That's perplexing, because most quarterbacks will tell you that first down is the easiest down to throw. But Gradkowski's rating on first down is only 55.7; it's 92.1 on third.
So far, he's better when the game is close than when the Bucs are badly behind. His rating when the game is within a touchdown is 80.9. When the Bucs are behind by more, it's 49.3.
So far, he's been a pretty good bargain. His rating is higher, and his interceptions lower, than either Leinart or Young. Then again, those two have more yards per completion.
So far, we also know this. The kid could use some help. It won't surprise you that Gradkowski has been better when Cadillac Williams has run the ball. It won't surprise you that his wins have come when the defense has played well. Other times, the Bucs have asked him to be their best offensive player. That's a load for any rookie.
At this point, however, it is also time to consider a quarterback's skills. Can he be dangerous? Can he be special?
Most of all, can he get a football from here to there? And can he take the team there too?