Ex-Rocket Gradkowski makes most of fresh start

Bruce Gradkowski led an 80-yard drive in the final minutes to tie the Bengals on Sunday.
Bruce Gradkowski led an 80-yard drive in the final minutes to tie the Bengals on Sunday.

ALAMEDA, Calif. - University of Toledo graduate Bruce Gradkowski waited so long for a second real shot as a starting quarterback in the NFL that he knows not to be overly satisfied after one game.

After starting 11 games as a rookie in 2006 for coach Jon Gruden in Tampa Bay, Gradkowski bounced around the league the past few years, going from Tampa Bay to St. Louis to Cleveland before finally ending up with the Raiders before this season.

Gradkowski had been let go by three teams and started only one game since his rookie season, a disastrous season finale for Cleveland at Pittsburgh last season.

"I was very fortunate to get all the experience I did as a rookie," Gradkowski said. "I was coached very well at the time. I learned a lot. It was a good experience. You shift around here and there, and then finally you catch on and get a break. Hopefully, we can make this last."

Gradkowski got off to a good start. He led an 80-yard drive in the closing minutes, converting a fourth-and-10 play to Chaz Schilens before connecting on a 29-yard game-tying touchdown pass to Louis Murphy with 33 seconds left Sunday against Cincinnati.

After the Bengals fumbled the ensuing kickoff, Gradkowski took three knees before Sebastian Janikowski kicked the game-winning 33-yard field goal that gave the Raiders (3-7) a 20-17 victory.

"I don't know that you can ask for a better closing drive than what he did there," coach Tom Cable said.

Gradkowski completed 17 of 34 passes for 183 yards and two touchdowns, throwing one interception and losing one fumble.

The touchdown passes were the first for Gradkowski since his last win as an NFL starter. Gradkowski threw two TD passes for Tampa Bay in a 20-17 victory over Washington on Nov. 19, 2006.

He had played in 13 games in the three years since that victory with very little to show for it.

"You just have to understand that's the nature of the game, that you're going to get bounced around," Gradkowski said. "I've got a good mentor in Jeff Garcia, and he started off in Canada, so he always gives me feedback. It's all about perseverance.

The Raiders signed Gradkowski in the offseason to add depth behind former No. 1 overall pick JaMarcus Russell. Oakland had Andrew Walter as a backup and went on to sign Jeff Garcia and Charlie Frye as well.

Gradkowski's experience with Raiders quarterbacks coach Paul Hackett in Tampa Bay played a role in the team's decision to sign him to help Russell develop.

But after Russell struggled in the first nine games, completing 46.8 percent of his passes and turning the ball over 14 times, Cable turned to Gradkowski last week.

The move turned out well and Cable is planning to start Gradkowski the rest of the way. Beyond that, he doesn't want to speculate.

"This will all sort itself out," Cable said. "To make statements like that right now would be ludicrous. I think right now, as I said when I made the change, he is our best chance to succeed, so we're going to keep riding it. How it all turns out, time will tell."

Gradkowski is 5 inches shorter than Russell, probably 50 pounds lighter, and lacks the big arm that helped Russell to become the No. 1 overall pick with $31 million in guaranteed money in 2007.

But Gradkowski offers plenty that Russell doesn't, mainly mobility in the pocket and an infectious energy that motivated the entire team last week.

"It all stems through the quarterback and he believes in us, he believes in himself and this offense and the players around him, and he rallies guys around him and we just want to make plays," running back Justin Fargas said.

Even the defense was energized by Gradkowski's play. The Raiders fell behind 14-0 quickly to the Bengals. In past games, the defense seemed to let up when that happened, lacking confidence in the offense to be able to come back.

But this time, the defense tightened and allowed only three more points to keep the team in the game long enough for Gradkowski to pull it out.

"When we saw them scoring and moving the ball, we were like, 'Look. This is how games should be,'" Raiders cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha said.