BRIAN CASSELLA / ST. PETERSBURG TIMES Enlarge
TAMPA, Fla. - Statistically speaking, no Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback performed better during his rookie season than Bruce Gradkowski did in 2006.
And statistically speaking, there's barely enough room for Gradkowski on the Bucs' roster in 2007.
The former University of Toledo star threw for 1,661 yards and nine touchdowns, completed 177 passes, and attempted 328 throws last year - all of which were team rookie records.
But Gradkowski's bottom line - a 3-8 record in 11 starts - wasn't acceptable to the Bucs' front office, and he's now in the midst of a month-long fight for his life on Tampa Bay's roster.
"You really can't take it personally," Gradkowski said. "This is a business, and just like any job if you're not getting your work done they're going to try to find someone else.
"I was fortunate enough to play last year and get some time and get some experience. All I can do is build off of that."
The Bucs brought in former Cleveland Browns and Detroit Lions quarterback Jeff Garcia to be their starter and have discussed luring former Denver Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer out of retirement.
They're still trying to help Chris Simms back from the ruptured spleen he suffered last year, and Bucs coach Jon Gruden has been taking a long look this preseason at another former Browns quarterback - Luke McCown.
So, no, Gradkowski isn't in any position to rest on his laurels, but he said he has welcomed all of the turbulence he's experienced during his short pro career.
"I think it's awesome," Gradkowski said. "I got to see what I didn't see in Toledo. Toledo was all good things and we had winning records every year, and the same with high school. It's a different little taste in my mouth, but I think it's going to be for the best."
Gradkowski's NFL days began much the way his whole career went at UT, where he set 19 school and three Mid-American Conference records and went 26-10 as a starter.
After seeing limited action in Tampa Bay's first three games, Gradkowski made his first start in New Orleans on Oct. 8. The Bucs lost 24-21, but Gradkowski completed 20 of 31 passes for two touchdowns with no interceptions.
Gradkowski won his next two starts - both at home - in thrilling fashion, leading come-from-behind efforts in a 14-13 victory over Cincinnati and a 23-21 triumph over Philadelphia.
But the tough times Gradkowski speaks of now began to rear their ugly heads following those two wins. He went just 1-7 in his last eight starts, throwing for five touchdowns compared with eight interceptions.
A Pittsburgh native, Gradkowski's darkest day might have come in his homecoming game against the Steelers on Dec. 3, when he was picked off three times in a 20-3 loss.
By the time the Bucs were playing what would have been a second homecoming of sorts for Gradkowski - a game in Cleveland on Christmas Eve - he had already been benched in favor of journeyman Tim Rattay.
"It was tough how the year ended," Gradkowski said. "It's just going to make me stronger. It made me stronger. There's going to be many more [games] for me in the future, so I just look forward to that."
Gruden, who has a penchant for stockpiling quarterbacks, said he still believes Gradkowski "has a chance to be a great quarterback."
But he also said Gradkowski has plenty of growing to do.
"He did some great things by NFL standards as a rookie quarterback," Gruden said. "He was able to win some games and complete some passes. Not a lot of rookies are afforded that opportunity.
"[But] his overall recognition, his overall playmaking, his overall leadership, everything that you could say about a quarterback, he needs to get better at to be great."
Prior to last night's exhibition game against Miami, Gradkowski had completed 13 of 22 passes for 163 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions in two preseason contests.
Gruden said Gradkowski and McCown are still competing to be Garcia's backup, even though McCown is listed second on Tampa Bay's depth chart and Gradkowski is listed fourth.
Simms is listed as the Bucs' third quarterback, but hasn't bounced back as well as he'd like from last year's spleen injury, and he didn't appear in the Bucs' first two preseason contests.
Gradkowski said that like any NFL player his goal is to start, but he's also recognized the dynamic changes on Tampa Bay's roster.
And he knows most teams don't usually keep four quarterbacks.
"You think about all kinds of situations, but I don't think I ever questioned if I'd be here or not," Gradkowski said. "It was just a matter of I have to work my tail off even harder now that we have more guys in.
"Competition is just going to make you better. I just keep learning year in and year out, sooner or later I'll be a starter in this league."
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