13 Oct 2006
Buccaneers rookie quarterback Bruce Gradkowski put up some impressive numbers last week against the Saints: 20-of-31, 225 yards, two touchdowns, no picks, a fine DPAR of 5.3, an efficiency rating of 107.6. How does an unheralded rookie have such a fine day? Thanks to the NFL Replay, I can answer that question.
Jon Gruden did what you would expect a coach to do for a rookie passer: he developed a gameplan to protect him. The Bucs' first drive consisted of four Cadillac Williams runs and one short rollout pass to Michael Pittman before Gradkowski threw his first touchdown. Gradkowski made a perfect throw to Joey Galloway to give the Bucs a 7-0 lead, but Galloway was his first and only read on the pass. On the next drive, a deep pass to Galloway netted 23 yards, but the Bucs still leaned on Cadillac to provide most of their offense. The Bucs' third drive consisted of three handoffs and a punt.
By the Bucs' fourth possession, Gruden was trying to manufacture offense. A double-reverse to Michael Clayton netted 27 yards (and yes, it was a double reverse). Gradkowski gained six yards on a designed rollout run. A flat pass to Cadillac produced nine yards, but Gradkowski led Cadillac too far on the play, and the second-year running back needed a fingertip catch to haul in the ball. Two screen passes yielded zero yards, as Gradkowski had a hard time timing his throws properly. A ten-play drive ended with a punt.
In the third quarter, most of Gradkowski's passes were into the flats. When he did take a deep drop and looked downfield, Gradkowski revealed a flaw in his game: poor pocket presence. Charles Grant beat his blocker and forced a Gradkowski fumble on a play where the rookie had room to step up and avoid the pressure. The fumble led to a Saints touchdown. On a later drive, Gradkowski rushed a throw with a defensive end in his face, resulting in an incomplete pass. If Gradkowski side-stepped that defender, he would have had time to throw or room to run.
A long run by Cadillac gave the Bucs a scoring opportunity in the third quarter. Gruden's gameplan in the red zone was very conservative through most of the game, with Mike Alstott getting all of the goal-line action. When Gradkowski was finally given a chance to throw the ball, he did well. He completed a jump-ball fade pass to fellow rookie Maurice Stovall, but the play was called back due to a penalty. He then rifled a pass to tight end Alex Smith for a touchdown that counted. It was a tough pass, and Gradkowski threw a strike.
After Reggie Bush's punt return touchdown gave the Saints the lead, Gradkowski had just over four minutes to take the Bucs 80-yards. He failed to rally the team, but Gradkowski played well in that final drive, completing five passes, one of which was called back for a penalty. Two of those completions were "useless" plays: short throws to Cadillac in long-yardage situations. But one was a strike to Ike Hilliard for big yardage.
All told, Gradkowski's effort was impressive, yet typical. He demonstrated great arm strength, accuracy, and mobility. But his lack of pocket presence, his poor timing on several short passes, and his tendency to lock onto one receiver betrayed his status as an unprepared rookie. Gruden will continue to disguise Gradkowski's weaknesses by running the ball and using trick plays to generate big plays. He'll design lots of bootlegs to make use of Gradkowski's speed. But the more film defenses get of the rookie, the more he will struggle. Gradkowski won't lead the Bucs into playoff contention, but he can prove over the next few months that he has a future as an NFL starter.
Our offseason Four Downs series ends with a look at the NFC West's biggest remaining holes and their most notable UDFA signings. The Rams and 49ers have to kick-start their passing games, Arizona's offense lacks a big dimension, and the Seahawks continue to rely on Russell Wilson's magic tricks.