tampabay.com

Next year's QB? Tell you when THEY know

In a lost season, the Bucs haven't even figured out their future at the most important position.

By JOHN ROMANO
Published December 12, 2006


TAMPA

So Bruce Gradkowski is back on the job. It seems Jon Gruden is comfortable enough to commit to his rookie quarterback for another five minutes, or so. Where it gets sticky is the five years that will follow.

In a season without cheer, this has become the saddest comment of all. That the Buccaneers have not only lost most of their games, but their direction as well.

Who is Tampa Bay's quarterback of the future?

And where, exactly, might he be found?

It has been a long time since the Bucs have finished a season with so little idea of who will be in charge when they begin anew.

Three months ago, Chris Simms seemed the logical answer. That is, until ineffectiveness, injury and free agency got in the way.

Two months ago, Gradkowski seemed a possibility. That thought lasted about as long as one of his deep passes.

The Tim Rattay era thrived for roughly four minutes, and the Luke McCown experiment never made it past the Petri dish.

All of which means the most important position on the field may also be the most unsettled on the roster.

With Gruden around, who could have ever imagined this? The man loves quarterbacks. He lusts after them. He hordes them. He was enthralled with Rob Johnson's foot speed and was enamored with Jeff Garcia's decision-making.

He has spent practically every moment of his five seasons in Tampa Bay fantasizing about someone else pulling the trigger on his offense.

And yet, today, his options are limited.

And, tomorrow, he is without guarantees.

The only thing we know for sure about the Bucs quarterback situation is that it is a mess. Two current quarterbacks, Simms and Rattay, will soon be free agents. Another, Gradkowski, has much growing to do. And the fourth, McCown, is a mystery, at best.

What of free agency, you ask? Why can't the Bucs find a Drew Brees, as New Orleans did, or a Steve McNair, as the Ravens have done?

The simple answer is those were anomalies. Teams rarely let a quarterback of Brees' ability hit the open market. And most veterans, such as McNair, are already playing in the shadows of their best days.

So where does that leave Tampa Bay? Essentially, in third and long. The Bucs are going to need a lot of money, a little vision and a bit of luck to get out of this mess. And when they've accomplished that, they'll need a backup, too.

How will it all break down? Here are some totally random odds on the possibilities.

Rattay: Even with Gradkowski playing poorly, even with six losses in seven games, even with the season sinking toward embarrassment, Gruden has not chosen to give Rattay a start. So what makes you think he will want to re-sign Rattay and anoint him the starter next season? Odds he is Tampa Bay's starter in 2007? 100-to-1.

McCown: As with any quarterback on the bench, there is an attractiveness to McCown's unknowns. He hasn't thrown any interceptions. He hasn't taken a sack. There are those who say he deserves a shot at running the huddle. Of course, they'd be wrong. This is a guy who was dumped by Cleveland for a late draft pick. He has four NFL starts in his career, and he hasn't thrown a meaningful pass in two years. And, oh yeah, he's coming off a knee injury. Odds as starter? 50-to-1.

Draft picks: Ohio State's Troy Smith just won the Heisman Trophy, and Notre Dame's Brady Quinn looks even better as a pro prospect. Picking in the top five of the draft, the Bucs could certainly have Smith and might even have a shot at Quinn. But Gruden can not afford another losing season in '07, and he certainly won't put his trust in another rookie. He might draft one, but he's not going to start him. Odds as starter? 40-to-1.

Gradkowski: Gruden sees something special. The rest of us see more heart than ability. Gradkowski will be back, but it's hard to imagine the Bucs entrusting their season to him. Say hello to the new No. 2. Odds as starter? 15-to-1.

Simms: The Bucs would appear to want him back. Presumably, they have looked at their options and realized Simms may be their best bet. The question is whether Simms wants to return. The free-agent market is weak, which means he could cash in if just one teams falls in love. And, just as importantly, will Simms want to sign up for more of Gruden's abuse? Odds as starter? 3-to-1.

Free agents: The current list is mighty small. There is Simms. There is Kansas City's Damon Huard. And there is Atlanta's Matt Schaub, who is a restricted free agent. The possibilities will grow in the off-season with veterans such as Jake Plummer, Mark Brunell, Drew Bledsoe and Byron Leftwich presumably being cut loose. Huard was impressive filling in for Trent Green but has sat on NFL benches for a decade. Plummer is probably the safest bet, but his upside is not tremendous. Schaub is intriguing, but he's largely an unknown. Still, this may be Gruden's best shot. Odds as starter? 2-to-1.