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Published: Monday, 12/4/2006

No easy road for Gradkowski

BY GENE COLLIER
BLOCK NEWS ALLIANCE

Away from the nominal pressure of the Heinz Field lawn and the Steelers who stalked it pretty much unimpeded for most of four quarters, the Tampa Bay head coach and his young quarterback could safely show the kind of polish they only wish was evident yesterday.

Hometown favorite Bruce Gradkowski, the rookie gunslinger, said all the right things postgame, and Jon Gruden, saddled with a third losing season in the last four, was as calm and measured as an NFL coach can be after such an atrocious spillage of alleged professional football, but still the stale locker room air was laced with mixed signals.

From the broad terms of general competitiveness to the narrow disciplines of execution, it still wasn t clear as the Buccaneers headed to the airport whether Gruden supported the further quarterbacking adventures of Gradkowski, just as it wasn t clear whether Gradkowski thought he played gamely or just badly.

I don t want to get into it tonight, Gruden said after the 23-year-old from Seton LaSalle High by way of the University of Toledo threw three interceptions on the way to a passer rating of 35.8, which was easily shaggy enough to get skunked 20-3 by the walking dead Steelers. We have to play a lot better than we did to win in this league. It s not just the quarterback. We ll take a look at every avenue we can to try and put our team in a better position to win.

There s a lot happening with our young quarterback, and it s pretty ambitious with what we re asking him to do. I m worried about every part of Bruce Gradkowski s whole life.

He s been through a lot the last three weeks. If you would have told me that he was going to be in Monday Night Football at Carolina, Thanksgiving Day at Dallas, and in his hometown against the defending Super Bowl champions in a three-week span, that s about as tough an order as you can ask any man. I just want to remind everyone that he s a young quarterback that s really got an upside, but unfortunately it just really didn t come through clear as day to everyone tonight.

That s right. Clear as day tonight. Clear?

All that said, Gruden had no compunctions about underlining the bad throws Gradkowski made, the misreads, the sacks for which he was as responsible as anyone in Steelers black and gold. To be sure, Gruden further pointed out the difficult circumstances in which Gradkowski is forced to operate, circumstances stacked ominously on top of the base predicament of having a body of NFL experience still measured in weeks rather than months.

Four different Buccaneer receivers dropped Gradkowski s passes yesterday, two of them vaporizing touchdowns on a day when two touchdowns would have meant plenty. Two rookie offensive linemen helped get Gradkowski sacked five times. There were five penalties against the Bucs, and the five drops didn t include the two fumbles.

Cadillac Williams, Tampa Bay s No. 1 draft pick a year ago, chipped in with the rare hat trick: a fumble, a dropped pass, a false start. Add an anemic 57 yards from scrimmage on 15 touches, and you ll see why it s no wonder some say Cadillacs are just too expensive.

Our execution is just not there, especially upfront, said offensive tackle Anthony Davis. We re doing a poor job up front, starting with me and all the way across.

For all of their self-flagellation, the Bucs were still in position to make a contest of this mess when Gradkowski drove them from their own 34 to the Pittsburgh 4 late in the third period. The Steelers led 10-0, but when Bruce loosed a rainbow toward the left corner of the end zone, 10-7 looked imminent.

The pass sailed over Maurice Stoval, however, and Bryant McFadden made a fine catch on it for the second Steelers pick.

He made a great play on it, Gradkowski said of McFadden. It was just a bad throw, said Gruden, and a good play by their corner. A little bit of both.

Among the myriad of things that could be posited as constricting Gradkowski s development, Gruden s West Coast offense shouldn t go unfingered. Tampa Bay s attack looks perfectly suited to what defensive genius Buddy Ryan used to call the Chuck and Duck.

Of Gradkowski s 20 completions yesterday, 14 were for nine yards or less, and half of those were carried the majority of the distance.

He completed only two throws of more than 20 yards, both nifty bullets that telegraphed his immense potential.

I ve got to learn on the move, but I m up to the challenge, the quarterback said. My confidence is fine, but I definitely have to show the consistency that it takes for Coach Gruden to have faith in me in the future.

No doubt he s got the arm, but plenty of doubt that he s got the armaments.

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Gene Collier is a columnist for the Post-Gazette.



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