From morass of mistakes, a QB emerges
If you wish, you can remember it as another loss in a string that is growing disturbingly long. If you prefer, you can add it to the list of games that got away, to the stack of penalties that erased promises or to the mounting number of missed tackles that have haunted a football team’s fall from grace. Or, if you prefer, you can remember this game as simply as this: Bruce Gradkowski?

Holy Cowski. The new kid in the huddle handled himself quite well Sunday, thank you very much. Yeah, the Bucs lost another game, but by now, that isn’t really news. This was the day that Tampa Bay opened a new can of quarterback, and suddenly, the season looks interesting again.

What more would you expect of a kid making his first start? What more is reasonable to ask of a quarterback thrust into the huddle of an underachieving offense? Except for the final result, what more would you want out of a rookie’s debut?

In other words, Gradkowski almost cured the Bucs Sunday afternoon. He played with poise, with energy, with a natural combativeness that almost helped him overcome the odds stacked against him. Gradkowski hit 20 of 31 passes for 225 yards, and until the Bucs were guilty of a pick play in the late going, he gave his team a chance for its first victory of the season.

In other words, the kid is going to be popular. Put your order in early for his jersey number. Sign him up to endorse whatever you are selling. And brace yourself for a name change: For the immediate future, this team is the Tampa Bay Bucowskis. “There is a lot of promise in that young guy,” said Jon Gruden (Grudenowski?). “He played his brains out. He really did. He played one hell of a football game.”

It was a lot to expect of a sixth-round draft pick from a small school, going on the road to play a rejuvenated New Orleans team in front of a crowd that has looked to the Saints to be part of a city’s healing process from Hurricane Katrina.

Yes, Gradkowski had been impressive in the preseason, but most of his play had come in the late stages against the long shots of other teams. Worse, Gradkowski found himself thrust into a huddle that hadn’t accomplished much in its first three losses. It couldn’t block, couldn’t run, couldn’t score. Yet, ask yourself this: Would the Bucs have been better Sunday with Chris Simms? Answer: Probably not.

Before games, Gradkowski admits, he’s a nervous kid. After them, he talks awfully fast. When the game is going on, however, there is a calm to Gradkowski. From the time he leaned over into his first huddle, there was a feeling among his teammates that he belonged. “There was nothing about him that looked new,” tight end Alex Smith said. “It was like he had played in the NFL for years.”

On the Bucs’ first drive, for instance, Gradkowski led them downfield as if there was nothing to this league. His second pass of the game was a perfect one to Joey Galloway for an 18-yard touchdown. High in the rafters of the Superdome, a woman embraced her husband, and both of them began to weep.

The Gradkowskis, Bruce Sr. and Deborah, are like that.Their seats were lousy, if you want to know the truth. But that didn’t matter much as they sat and watched their son sign his name on another league. There were 15 of the Gradkowskis in all, dressed in various Gradkowski jerseys, some of them self-designed at a Pittsburgh sporting goods store. "Except for the result, it was everything you could want,” Bruce Sr. said later as he stood on a New Orleans street outside the Superdome to exchange a brief embrace with his son before the team buses left. “I was just glad he stayed calm and played his game.”

So what grade goes on the refrigerator? The father pauses a minute, and then the Pittsburgh in him comes out. “Ah, I got to give him a B-plus. They didn’t win the game. His mom would probably give him an A.” “No,” said Deborah. “If they had won, it would be different.”

In that snapshot, even with the pride of parents who have seen their son play well, perhaps you get an understanding of why Gradkowski may prove to be the perfect quarterback for Gruden. There seems to be a chemistry to the two, and at opening glance, Gradkowski may be a better fit for Gruden’s offense.

Perhaps this, too, will impress you about Gradkowski. He doesn’t want you to grade him on the curve. “I think I should be graded how any starting quarterback is graded in this league,” Gradkowski said. “You come out here and you have to win football games. I don’t want to have people say, 'Oh, he’s just a rookie.’ I want more pressure than that. Coach Gruden doesn’t expect me to play like a rookie. I have to live up to his standards, too.”

Gradkowski has some pluck to him. He led his team from behind once, and until Galloway was guilty of a pick play, he seemed poised to do it again. “He is a very exciting prospect,” Gruden said. “He creates with his feet. He sees things. He has a flair about him. And he earned a lot of respect from our team today, which is important. I’m proud of him. Gosh, I’m proud of him.”

Yes, it gets tougher. There are twists and turns and turbulence, and we will see how Gradkowski adjusts. But, yeah, it was a nice way to say hello. “I think he can be a star,” Cadillac Williams said.

At this point, it’s a little soon for that. At this point, Gradkowski needs some room to grow. He needs to be better next week than he was this week, and after a while, we’ll see. Then, maybe he can play safety, too. Maybe he can cover a punt. A little later, maybe he can be governor.

Gary Shelton, The St.Petersburg Times 9 October 2006