Gradkowski is good, but he has room to grow

Was it the start of a long and successful career or was it just a rookie quarterback surrounded by talent? Whatever it was, Buccaneers quarterback Bruce Gradkowski did everything in New Orleans Sunday but win the football game.

There was a lot of speculation during the past two weeks on how the rookie would handle his first career start after Chris Simms went down with a ruptured spleen. Could he handle the spotlight and the pressure the Saints defense would bring?

Not only did he exceed expectations, he rarely looked like a rookie. He showed poise in the huddle, in the pocket and led the offense like a veteran.

Gradkowski finished the game 20-for-31 with 225 yards and two touchdowns, but had one costly fumble. The fumble, however, never rattled the youngster from Toledo and he came close to leading the Bucs to their first victory of the season.

A questionable pass interference call on Joey Galloway negated a 38-yard completion to Ike Hillard that would have set up a possible go-ahead score. Despite the call, Gradkowski proved to himself and his teammates that he has what it takes to be a starting quarterback in the NFL.

Gradkowski, however, now faces the toughest challenge yet, one that many NFL players crumble under. That challenge is to remain consistent at his position and continue to get better in John Gruden’s difficult West Coast offense.

So has Gradkowski officially replaced Simms as the starter?

If you listen to sports talk radio and read the newspapers in the Tampa Bay area, everyone has Gradkowski fever. But don’t run out and buy your No. 7 jersey just yet. Simms did struggle early, but wasn’t the only reason that the Bucs started out 0-3. Carnell “Cadillac” Williams wasn’t effective in the running game and the offensive line was playing softer than a four-pack of Charmin Ultra.

Also, the defense did not live up to the expectations Bucs fans have developed over the past 10 years. Simms was put in situations that forced the offense to play from behind and abandoned the run early.

Quarterbacks such as Brett Farve, Donovan McNabb and Rich Gannon have been successful with the West Coast offense, but it took those three quarterbacks at least two seasons to grasp it entirely, much less master the complicated system. Simms, who hasn’t started an entire 16-game season, was expected to lead the offense with ease, but his struggles had fans and Gruden ready to push the panic button.

Simms’ injury gave the fans and Gruden what they wanted, which was Gradkowski under center. Gruden raved about Gradkowski’s talent on the field and his ability to grasp the offense so quickly in training camp. Truth be told, Gruden wanted Gradkowski to start, but was loyal to Simms.

Gradkowski showed flashes of brilliance, including an 18-yard touchdown pass – his first career TD pass – to Galloway on the first drive of the game. He also displayed his touch when he hit Galloway between two Saints defenders. He also had a strong running game to take some of the pressure off the passing game, something Simms didn’t have in the first three games.

Gradkowski has fans, his teammates and Gruden believing he is the right quarterback for this team and system. But just remember: Simms supplied the same feeling last season with a strong ending to the regular season and a solid showing in a 17-10 playoff loss to Washington.

What happens if Gradkowski has four or five bad games in a row? Does Gruden go back to Simms – who will be a free agent at season’s end – when he’s healthy, or does he stick with the promising rookie?

Only time will tell.