After this setback, which quarterback gets the call?
For nine weeks, he has been on a storage shelf, somewhere in the Bucs' equipment room. He was on the road, and the penalty flags were flying, and the field position was awful, and he didn't know for sure that he was going to get the start until a couple of hours before the game.

All in all, you would have to admit that the Bucs asked a lot of Brian Griese on Sunday afternoon. All in all, you would also have to suggest they had a right to expect more than this.

You wait. You play. You win. Everyone who plays quarterback in the NFL, and everyone who wants to, knows the way it works. Rust doesn't matter. Limited practice doesn't matter. Location doesn't matter. You throw. You compete. You find a way.

Griese knows. Even as he stood outside the Bucs locker room Sunday evening, talking about his performance in a 13-10 overtime loss to Atlanta, Griese knew he had not completed the bottom line. You can talk about degree difficulty all you want, but the offense his offense, at least for the time being didn't do enough, and because of it, the season feels as if it is slipping away from a team that had it well gripped only six days ago.

"We didn't win the game," said Griese, who started in place of injured Jeff Garcia. "Really, that's how I judge quarterbacks around the league. It's whether you win or lose. It was difficult, but I've been doing this for quite some time now, and I understand what it takes to get ready."

The truth of it is that Griese wasn't horrible Sunday. He hit 26 of 37 passes, and his quarterback rating was higher than it has been all season. On the other hand, Griese led his team to only one touchdown. Now, of course, comes a familiar question. With the Bucs' season teetering on the ledge, who is going to play quarterback next week?

Oh, Jon Gruden said after the game that if Garcia is healthy next week, he'll start. No question. At this time of year, however, health is a matter of degree. Odds are, Garcia will still ache here and there. Which means the decision could still come back to a judgment call by Gruden.

Will it be Garcia, who moved so stiffly around the locker room Sunday that you wonder whether John Abraham had sacked him three times, too. Is it Griese, whose grasp of the offense has always made him a favorite of Gruden? Is it Luke McCown, the quarterback who was bypassed Sunday?

Before you decide, ponder the scene early Sunday. It was just after 9, and Gruden was watching Garcia try to go through his workout. It was obvious Garcia wasn't ready to go. "His game is being spontaneous," Gruden said. "It's change of direction. It's creating passing lanes. He wasn't ready to go today. I don't regret not playing him. We had no choice."

It was the second time this year Garcia has moved aside to watch Griese play. This time, Garcia agreed with the decision. "I think we would have taken a chance on making it worse and probably ending the season," Garcia said.

That meant McCown, right? After all, he has been the No. 2 quarterback for most of the season. Most people, including Luke, expected that Luke would be the starter if Garcia couldn't go.

Instead, the call went to Griese, who keeps turning up as the Bucs quarterback. Around Tampa Bay, the guy's nickname should be "Griese Again." "Experience is big," Gruden said. "I don't regret that at all."

Perhaps not, but there were times when Griese looked like a quarterback who hadn't played since early October. He took sacks for 43 yards on plays when he had a chance to throw the ball away. He struggled on third down (three of 14). He failed to capitalize when the Bucs blocked a punt late in the fourth quarter and ended up with a first down on the Falcons 12.

Might McCown's younger legs have given him a chance to run away from Abraham's rush? Might his stronger arm have allowed him to test the Falcons secondary deeper? We'll never know. So who plays next week? If it wasn't McCown this week, odds are, it won't be him against the Chargers, either.

That means the decision is going to come down to Garcia's right leg, in that area in back between the calf and the Achilles' tendon. If it cooperates, Garcia will be back. If not, it will be Griese. Again.

Gary Shelton, The St.Petersburg Times 15 December 2008