Given chance, McCown does not disappoint
For more than a thousand days, he waited. For a thousand days, he wondered. And for a thousand days, it seemed, the NFL forgot a little bit more about Luke McCown.
Given that, perhaps it was understandable to see the bounce in McCown's step as he walked briskly across the conquered turf of the New Orleans Superdome on Sunday evening.
It had been an hour or so since McCown had lit up the place, but by now, the lights had been dimmed and the seats had been emptied. The stripes passed quickly beneath his feet as he walked from the locker room to the bus, and the words tumbled out of his throat as if he had been waiting to say them for a very long time.
It was hard to blame McCown if some of the adrenalin was still flowing. After all, he was getting closer to another end zone. Finally, he was moving forward again.
McCown was brilliant in Sunday afternoon's 27-23 victory over the Saints. On a day when his teammates would have settled for dependable, when his fans would have been thrilled with reliable, McCown was an outstanding quarterback. He was poised. He was precise. He was resilient.
In McCown's first start for the Bucs - and in his first NFL start in almost three years - he was good enough to win a big division game against the last rival standing, good enough to overcome his own mistakes and perhaps most important, good enough to suggest that the lights do not shut off when Jeff Garcia leaves the room.
This was the stuff of dreams, his and yours. For an eternity, it seems, McCown, 26, has waited for the chance to move around in a pocket, to throw deep, to make a difference to an offense that has to go on without its regular quarterback. For an eternity, it seems, Tampa Bay has waited for the same thing.
"You talk about dreams?" McCown said, laughing as he walked across the field. "I don't think a dream includes an interception return for a touchdown or a sack for a safety."
No, probably not. And it is true: McCown wasn't perfect Sunday afternoon. But he was better than anyone had reason to expect. He completed his first 15 passes. For the day, he hit 29 of 37 passes for 313 yards. He threw short. He threw long. He had a 26-yard scramble.
Most impressive of all, however, was the way McCown swallowed the two mistakes that could have cost his team and still managed to salvage the game with a 4-yard touchdown pass to Jerramy Stevens with 14 seconds to play.
"It was awesome to see," said Garcia, who missed the game with a bad back. "Luke has the accuracy. He has the intelligence. He has the athleticism. He has the great combination of skills to achieve success at this level, and it was good to see him do it."
Garcia should know. He was a teammate of McCown's three years ago, back when McCown lost his only four starts with a bad Browns team. It is fair to say that McCown hasn't been on a lot of fantasy league teams since then. In the meantime, McCown watched as the Bucs went from Brian Griese to Chris Simms to Bruce Gradkowski to Tim Rattay to Garcia. He rehabbed from knee surgery, and he went to meetings, and he played pretty well in preseason. But a 313-yard afternoon?
"It means a lot," McCown said. "I never thought that my chance wouldn't come, but a lot of quarterbacks are in the NFL for a long time, and they never get a chance to play. You have to relish every chance you get. Especially when you get to play in a place like this, against that team, with this team."
Then again, the Bucs are Team Resilient. Cadillac Williams goes down, and Earnest Graham takes over without a dip in play. Luke Petitgout is injured, and Donald Penn steps in. And so it goes.
As good as the day was for McCown, it was a keeper for Bucs coach Jon Gruden, too. He didn't try to play without a quarterback. He let a new starter come out firing, and McCown threw as if he were still playing quarterback up the road at Louisiana Tech, the place where he had 12 400-yard passing days.
"We were going to attack every time we had the ball," Gruden said. "For us to win this game, we knew we were going to have to score some points."
Give Gruden credit for this, too. Shortly after New Orleans coach Sean Payton showed he was nuts, Gruden showed he had guts. Four plays after Payton's boneheaded call for a reverse led to a Saints fumble, Gruden called his field goal team off the field and went for it on fourth and 1. Graham made it. Four plays after that, McCown threw for his touchdown.
After that, you knew. There is something to McCown. Yes, other quarterbacks have started well - Gradkowski was impressive against the Saints last year, too - and then faded. But in McCown, you can see enough arm, enough legs, enough pocket presence to think he can blossom into a quarterback worth cheering.
Yeah, he can do some things better. On his interception, he looked harried long before the miscommunication led to Mike McKenzie's 53-yard interception return. On the safety, McCown was the only guy in New Orleans who didn't realize he should have thrown the ball away.
As for next week, who knows? Garcia swears that, no matter what you read, there is nothing structurally wrong with his back. Maybe he will return against the Texans. Maybe not. For some reason, however, his absence doesn't sound like a death sentence, does it? That, as much as anything, is what McCown accomplished for his team Sunday. For the rest of us, too.
Gary Shelton, The St.Petersburg Times 3 December 2007