Wanted: Star QB
For 10 weeks, the Bucs stuck with rookie quarterback Bruce Gradkowski. Defiant in defeat. Immovable in the face of mistakes. Touchdowns or turnovers, it mattered not. Eight times on Sunday, Gradkowksi was front and under center when a series started. But trailing 14-6 to the Falcons on Sunday with 4:31 remaining, Gradkowski got some new instructions from coach Jon Gruden. Take a seat, fella.

After extending the Bucs' sad streak without a touchdown to 11 quarters, Gradkowski was benched in favor of Tim Rattay in a 17-6 loss. Gruden said he is undecided who will start at Chicago on Sunday. "We've made a lot of quarterback switches here in the last four or five years, trying to find a guy that can be our starter," Gruden said. "It looks a lot easier than it is, and I'm sure you all (in the media) have your opinions. But we're dealing with a young guy (Gradkowski) who is playing the best there is in football. If you're a quarterback out there in America, we'll be looking into your situation as well."

Gradkowski finished 13-of-24 for 121 yards but couldn't get the Bucs into the end zone. Their last touchdown came with 9:18 left in the first quarter at Dallas on Thanksgiving. That's 2 hours, 51 minutes and 42 seconds of football without finding the end zone. The loss dropped the Bucs to 3-10 overall, 0-6 in the NFC South, and marked the second time this season they failed to score a touchdown against the Falcons.

Gradkowski led the Bucs to field goals on their first two series. And Matt Bryant missed a 51-yard field goal on the third. But Gradkowski committed a game-changing turnover when he was sacked by John Abraham and fumbled. Demorrio Williams scooped up the fumble and returned it 54 yards for a touchdown to erase the 6-0 lead. "I can't sit back there and hold the ball, especially against a good rusher like that," Gradkowski said. "I have to be more aware and protect the ball better."

Despite losing running backs Warrick Dunn (hamstring) and Jerious Norwood (knee) in a span of five plays in the third quarter, the Falcons extended their lead on a 21-yard run by fullback Justin Griffith. The 5-foot-10, 232-pounder, who entered the game with only six carries for 34 yards, put a move on safety Will Allen that left him grabbing at air. "I just should've made the tackle," Allen said. "I have no excuse. Seeing a fullback come up the middle, you don't expect him to put a move on you. That's the game. Not that I underestimated him, I just didn't press him hard enough. I expected him to be more of a one-move guy. He just got me."

Gradkowski played two more series, managing just one first down, before Gruden gave him the hook in favor of Rattay, who had never taken a regular-season snap since being acquired from the 49ers last year. "I just think there were a couple of situations where he just looked tentative to me," Gruden said of Gradkowski. "He looked a little bit unsure, out of rhythm. And there were a couple of plays there he's good enough to make, he's got to make, to beat the Atlanta Falcons. I just think a change of quarterback could possibly give us a spark."

The change came after Gruden told Fox announcers Saturday he would not yank Gradkowski no matter the situation. Gradkowski said he understood the decision. "After I fumbled the one, we really weren't moving the ball," he said. "That's (Gruden's) decision, and I have to go with it. We weren't making many plays, so something had to change. And that's what he decided."

Not that it mattered. Rookie Maurice Stovall dropped a pass on Rattay's first play. And on the second, Cadillac Williams was stripped by Rod Coleman, and Josh Mallard recovered at the Tampa Bay 13. It was Williams' third lost fumble of the season and second in as many games. "Right now, I'm kind of disgusted," Williams said. "Overall, it's another loss and another big fumble for me. So right now, I just feel frustrated."

After a Falcons field goal, Rattay went 8-of-12 for 83 yards against a prevent defense. But in the final seconds, Rattay fumbled a snap from the Falcons 5. With no timeouts, the clock ran. His pass to Joey Galloway on third and goal came up 2 yards short, and he was stopped for no gain on a sneak as time expired. "It doesn't really matter. We lost," Rattay said. "We were 11 down and still obviously had a chance to win the game, and that's what we were trying to do. We didn't accomplish that, so that was frustrating."

Not as frustrating as Gruden's search for a quarterback. Maybe he should have stuck around for halftime, when the team honored the Bucs alumni. Steve DeBerg, Craig Erickson and Jeff Carlson are available. "We have to find a guy who can dominate," Gruden said. "Not a guy who can run a game or help us score here or there. We have to find a guy in Tampa, Fla., who can dominate in the NFL and be a superstar quarterback that gives us a chance to be where we want to be. Until we do, we're going to be looking."

Rick Stroud, The St.Petersburg Times 11 December 2006