Bruce Gradkowski gets ready to hand off to Cadillac Williams during a Tampa Bay Buccaneers practice last week.
Serne, Bill / St. Petersburg Times Enlarge
NEW ORLEANS - Bruce Gradkowski Sr. and his youngest son, Gino, were in Tampa two weeks ago today when Bucs quarterback Chris Simms was injured so badly in a game against Carolina that he needed emergency surgery to remove his spleen.
Late that night, Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden called the younger Bruce Gradkowski, his rookie backup quarterback out of the University of Toledo, and told him he was being promoted.
"Bruce took us to the airport the next morning, and I gave him a hug and said, 'Go get 'em,'•" the elder Gradkowski recalled. "He said, 'Dad, I can do this.'•"
With two weeks of preparation under his belt, Gradkowski appears ready to show the NFL just what he can do when he makes his first career start here today against the New Orleans Saints.
"His mother and I have talked to Bruce on the phone almost every night this past week, and he's all fired up and ready to go,"
Gradkowski's dad said. "It's not the way he wanted to get the job, but he couldn't have been in a better spot, and he's excited about the opportunity. He really wants to have a good showing in his first start.
"The Bucs are 0-3, so he feels he can just play his game and see how it all falls."
The Bucs got a good look at Gradkowski's game during the preseason, when he won the backup job by completing 45 of 61 passes (.738) for 511 yards, five touchdowns and three interceptions. His passer rating in those games was a lofty 105.3.
"A lot of people expect us to tone down the playbook and be a lot more conservative, but I don't think we're going to take that approach," Bucs tight end Alex Smith said last week. "Bruce demonstrated what he could do this preseason, and I think he's comfortable with the offense."
Gruden has emphasized during the past two weeks - the Bucs are coming off a bye week - that Gradkowski should feel free to bring his own style to the Tampa offense.
"Put your own spin on the position," Gruden said he told his rookie. "You can put your own spin on it, and we're hoping that's an asset for us.
"We think he's a good player. It's up to him now to put his own spin on the position and play at a level that helps us win games. I think he's done a good job [in practice]. I thought our team responded to it. It's a tough situation, and it's a great challenge, but if anybody can do it, Bruce can do it. We've got to help him."
Although the Bucs are hurting on the offensive line with the loss of veteran right tackle Kenyatta Walker, there is decent skill-position talent around Gradkowski in running back Cadillac Williams, trusty fullback Mike Alstott, and receivers like Smith, Michael Clayton and Joey Galloway.
The defense is one of the better units in the NFL, but has been on the field too often and in bad positions during the opening few games. Tampa Bay has surrendered 67 points, and 31 have come directly off Bucs turnovers.
Simms, a classic drop-back passer, was intercepted seven times in three games. Gradkow-
ski is three inches shorter, has a bit less velocity on his ball, and is far more mobile. He'll keep plays alive longer with his feet, and Smith said the receivers know he'll bring another dimension to the offense.
Toledo fans won't be the least bit surprised that many Bucs have commented on the air of confidence Gradkowski has exhibited during the past two weeks.
It was just 10 months ago that Gradkowski capped his UT career with a five-touchdown passing performance in a GMAC Bowl victory, but he's taking in stride his sudden rise to NFL starter.
"There's a different beat," he told reporters in Tampa. "You have to step your game up a level. All the eyes in the huddle are on you. So I have to be confident, I have to make the right decisions and just be a good leader.
"I'm just going to bring energy out there on the field and do my thing. I'm going to take things as they come and make smart decisions and rely on the guys around me. I'm a rookie, but I'm going to play my game. This is definitely a challenge, but I love it."
Gradkowski will have more than coaches and teammates in his corner today in the Louisiana Superdome. About 15 family members and friends have made the trip from Pittsburgh for the
1 o'clock game.
"My mom, Bruce's grandmother, will be there," said Bruce Gradkowski Sr. "My wife, Debbie, and I are going. Our daughter will be there. My brother from Alabama is coming over. One of Bruce's aunts is going. Two of his buddies who were captains with him at Seton Lasalle [High School] are with us. We might end up in the nose-bleed section, but he'll hear us. I'll be doing more pacing than sitting."
Last spring, as the NFL draft moved into its second day and one name after another was called before the ex-Rocket finally was selected in the sixth round by Tampa Bay, there was a lot of pacing going on at the Gradkowski house.
It's a distant memory now. Things can change quickly.
"Two weeks ago, we were ready to get on the plane in Tampa," the elder Gradkowski said. "Gino shook Bruce's hand and said, 'Who would have ever thought all you were worrying about was getting picked in the third round. Then you waited and waited. Hey man, you're the starter now.'•"
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