By David Fleming
Page 2

Ten days.

That's what Tampa Bay rookie QB Bruce Gradkowski now has. Ten days to replace Chris Simms. Ten days to learn the offense, get in sync with his wideouts, inspire his line and figure out the Saints. Ten days to save a season, a coach and a franchise from ruin. Ten days to elevate his game from Toledo, the Mid-American Conference and the sixth round of the draft all the way up to one of the most demanding positions in all of sports: starting NFL quarterback.

Impossible?

Well, it was until I came up with this: The Flem File's brand new NFL QB Tip-of-the-Day desktop calendar.

This amazing new product, brought to you by Hallmark and Scouts Inc., is the perfect gift when you just don't know what to get the rookie quarterback in your life who has just been thrown to the wolves by a freak injury to the starter. You see, as the quarterback gets closer to game time, each day offers a new hopeful and helpful clue, tip, mantra or scouting pointer to help the former clipboard caddy understand just what he's up against as he approaches humiliation -- or instant stardom -- on a national level.

Check it out. Each one is personally customized for the conference, injury and draft round of your rookie quarterback. Not available in Oakland. Refills sold separately.

DAY 10: CONFIDENCE
Today's mantra is confidence. I've heard you aren't lacking in this category. That when you were an underclassman at Toledo holding for extra points and field goals, you secretly hoped for bad snaps so you could pick up the ball and do something with it. That after getting the call from Gruden you said, "I definitely feel like I'm ready. Coach didn't bring me in here to be a clipboard holder my whole career." Good. I like that. That's great. Because you're gonna need all that bravado -- and more.

See, well, this is it really, the season might all just come down to this one start. So Chucky's going to be breathing down your neck every second of every day until kickoff. Ditto for the fans, and teammates, friends, family, heck even your dog will disown you if this goes poorly. I've lost count of the number of young buck QBs I've seen get eaten alive in their first few starts and never recover mentally or physically.

Tim Couch? That name sound familiar? No. Wait. Scratch that. Forget him.

This week will have ups and downs, but just remember this: You're the guy who started out as a 176-pound QB with one Division I scholarship offer who willed himself into being the MVP of the 2004 Mid-American Conference championship game, the guy who set the NCAA record for completion percentage (68.2), the guy whose swagger, mobility and playmaking in the preseason (45-of-61 for five TDs against three INTs) inspired Gruden to use the words "Italian Stallion."

No matter what happens over the next 10 days, promise yourself you won't forget that.

DAY 9: TREAD LIGHTLY
Today your job is easy: Leave coach alone. All day (and probably all night, knowing Gruden) the staff has been watching an endless loop of game film on the Saints during the first month of the season. The game plan will still be a blank slate at this point, and Gruden will be noodling away in his office, jotting things down, diagramming plays on his chalkboard, crumpling up papers, tossing them out and then digging them back out of the trash can. Mike Martz likes to lock himself in his office and watch endless hours of tape on his opponent until the yellow legal pad in front of him begins to fill up with ideas.

Gruden will be taking your entire playbook into consideration, trying to figure which schemes, formations, personnel groupings and plays will best exploit the Saints' weaknesses while covering up your own. (So, no, he won't be scaling back the playbook at all, but he will be significantly altering it to fit your game. Same thing, really.) And it won't be easy. You're five inches shorter than the last guy, you have zero real NFL experience and the guy you're replacing, unlike you, threw with his left hand, so it's like having the rest of the offense relearn their plays in a mirror.

So in your situation, my guess is that means three things: run the ball, run the ball, run the ball. Now's not the time to bug Gruden about bombs or fly routes or a raise. Besides getting you ready, he'll also be trying to devise a plan to get his aging defense to stop Deuce, Bush, Brees and Horn, all without going nuclear at the thought of an 0-4 start. So he'll be a little testy today. Stay clear.

Now, I know he's had his fair share of problems since winning the Super Bowl with Tony Dungy's team but, in my mind at least, Gruden still ranks up there with Belichick, Fox and Shanahan as far as putting his players in the best position to win week in and week out. So leave him alone and let him work.

DAY 8: MAC ATTACK
Gruden will have you at the facility watching tape and whittling down the playbook to suit your skill and comfort, but as you're flipping around the TV watching the games today, take a break from staring at the Saints' front four on defense and try this little exercise with the remote: Oh hey, there's Super Bowl champ Ben Roethlisberger ... click ... there's Chad Pennington ... click ... and Byron Leftwich, whaddaya know ... click ... and my old pal Charlie Frye ... wow ... What do all these accomplished NFL quarterbacks have in common? That's right, they all came from the Mid-American Conference, just like you -- only they were all far less accurate than you were.

DAY 7: FOOTWORK
Today likely will be a light day of work. Watch film of the Saints' defensive ends and how they contained and fooled Mike Vick on his reads. Stop. Rewind. Replay. Now go get a good sweat going, take some snaps, throw a bit to your new wideouts, and all during the day really concentrate on your footwork.

Footwork is the key. It's the key to everything, really. Trust me. Because when everything else falls apart -- when the blitz is coming and the protection breaks down and your wideouts have broken off their routes and a nose guard has you by the shoelaces and Chucky's making that face, that orange juice-right-after-brushing-your-teeth-face -- if you maintain good footwork it'll bail you out of almost any situation.

So you should be able to drop back 100 times and step in the same footprints every ... single ... time. Remember when Steve McNair was banged up a few seasons ago and couldn't practice all week before games? He told me the key was as long as he could work on his footwork every day, his accuracy and execution wouldn't fall off because throwing is all in the feet. Yes, grasshopper, 100 times.

DAY 6: GOODBYE
Spend whatever free time on this traditional off day calling family and friends, paying bills, taking the dog for a walk or seeing a movie. Then kiss your life goodbye. Because as of tomorrow morning, Gruden owns you.

DAY 5: INSTALLATION
Ugh. Installation day is the hardest day -- by far. This is when the coaches unload the entire game plan on you. It's base day: the day you decide what your base offense and base defense are going to look like. You can expect to see a lot of max protect stuff (using five linemen, a tight end and a back to pass block): Don't be insulted, this is Gruden's way of saying he wants to keep you around for a while.

Besides a long practice, coaches like to use several mediums (live, film, chalkboard and Polaroids) to help you absorb all this info in a short amount of time. Your head will be swimming. Don't worry. So is everyone else's. This day is so busy that when he was a head coach in Houston, Dom Capers used to schedule breaks for the players that were, get this, five whole minutes long.

Get to the facility early, stay late. And don't complain. Once, during the offseason, Gruden came to the facility at, like, 5 a.m. and saw what he thought was some crazy person running wind sprints in the dark on the practice field. Upon closer examination, he realized it was Bucs linebacker Derrick Brooks. The lesson? Suck it up, rook. You're looking at a minimum of four hours of class work and study and two hours on the field.

The good news is, if you make it through today without their finding you on the pirate ship sucking your thumb in the fetal position, well, congratulations: You are officially an NFL quarterback.

DAY 4: SPECIALIZATION
Now that the base O is installed, you move on to the specialized portion of the game plan. With so much info so fast, your head will be marshmallow. Focus. This stuff is all situational and it's all huge. Third-and-short. Third-and-long. Fourth down. Backed up to your own goal. Red zone. Trick plays. Gruden will be putting all this stuff in today as well as tweaking all the base stuff from yesterday.

Understand that all this stuff is done to create matchups (mismatches is more like it) that favor you and your personnel. But it's even more specific than that. One word you'll be hearing about a thousand times today is "key." And it's not short for Keyshawn, trust me. More like: What's your key? The safety is the key to that read, the hash mark is the key to that route, the wideout's break is the key to that timing. Study these. Know them. Love them.

You'll get cut-up tapes of all this stuff to study at home, on your laptop and in the john (Gruden would implant chips in your head if he could get it past the CBA, so watch for that, as well; always keep him in front of you).

For the most part you should keep your mouth shut this week, lots of nods, "got its" and "yeps" -- but today is the day Gruden will be looking for feedback from you, and you should make the most of the opportunity. Ask questions. Add wrinkles. Tell your wideouts what you want. And if you don't like a play, if it's not working or if it just doesn't feel right -- speak now.

DAY 3: PERFECT FRIDAY
Many coaches, including San Diego's Marty Schottenheimer, call this day "Perfect Friday." It's self-explanatory, really. There won't be a lot of physical work today, but what little time you do spend on the field, coaches and teammates want it to be a high-energy, rapid-fire dress rehearsal of the game plan. No fumbles. No flags. No mess-ups. Crisp reads. Laser throws. Sharp. Fast. Explosive.

I'm convinced that how you practice today is the best indicator of how you're going to play on Sunday. Then afterward, do what LaDainian Tomlinson does to reward himself after a perfect Friday: Get a massage. You earned it.

DAY 2: RAH-RAH
Don't be left waiting for a big rah-rah Vince Lombardi speech in the locker room right before the game. Nowadays, most coaches give their big speech to the team at the last meeting on Saturday night at the team hotel or the facility. The walk-through is nothing, so don't worry about that. Be loose. Crack a few jokes. Act like you've been doing this for years and years. Make your teams believe in you -- even if you have to fake it.

Listen, most young QBs can't sleep the night before their first start. Neither will you. Don't worry about it. Your confidence will ebb and flow in the dark recesses of the night. You'll have visions of going 10-3 the rest of the season and throwing out the first pitch to start the next Toledo Rockets' season and then -- BAM! -- you'll have that nightmare where you jog out to the huddle after the opening kickoff still in your pajamas. (Mine's the one where there's a week left in college and in the middle of a wrestling match the ref, Michael Stipe, tells me I still don't have all the credits I need to graduate.)

Anyway, when that happens, go splash some water on your face and think back to that game against Miami in the 2004 MAC championship. The one you played with a broken throwing hand and a dislocated shoulder. You won the game 35-27. You won the MAC. You won MVP. And you won a spot on the Bucs' draft board with that game. (Or maybe it was that 49-of-62 game for 461 yards against Pittsburgh?)

Either way, you won those games because you were fearless and joyful and you didn't waste energy on the things you couldn't control. Nothing's changed. And if the game is bigger, faster and more important, well, so are you.

If that doesn't work, download the sound track from "The Last Kiss" and put your iPod on repeat. The movie is no "Garden State," but Zach Braff has hit another compilation out of the park.

DAY 1: FIVE PLAYS
Didn't sleep, huh? Told you. Don't worry. Get to the stadium early, get taped, and then find a place -- storeroom, secondary locker room, office, even the shower-room floor -- and take a cat nap. Most rookies get so wound up before their first game they're exhausted before they even hit the field.

Just before you nod off, I want you to channel Brad Johnson. No, come on, I'm serious. I watched him in training camp. Then I watched Steelers backup Charlie Batch outplay all-world talent Daunte Culpepper in the season opener. Then I checked my NFL record book and looked at some Super Bowl QB names: Johnson, Dilfer, Collins, Delhomme. No offense, but I think we've entered into the era of the mediocre QB. What I mean by that is this (and this is huge): In today's game, the throws that quarterbacks don't make are becoming more important than the ones they do.

So through all the hype and nerves -- pregame meal, QB meetings, last-second Polaroids from coaches, pep talks, back slaps, voice mails from family and friends, getting taped -- repeat after me: five plays. Five Plays. Five. Plays. All you have to do in order for the Bucs to win the game is five plays.

If I had to guess, it would be: (1) A 15-yard scramble for a first down to keep a drive alive; (2) An 8-yard pass completion on third-and-7 when everyone in the stadium knows you're going to throw the ball to the sidelines; (3) After Cadillac brings the safety down into the box for run support, a great play-action fake and a pass to the tight end down the middle seam; (4) Single-handedly turn one potentially negative yardage play into a plus play; (5) When every bone in your body is telling you that you can make that throw and force that ball into that mouse hole before the corner gets there, instead of letting it go, throw the ball away to live and play for another day.

Of course, if you do that you'll need to refill your QB Tips-a-Day calendar.

But by then you'll be a rich, popular starting NFL quarterback.

So buy your own.

David Fleming is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His first book was "Noah's Rainbow: a Father's Emotional Journey from the Death of his Son to the Birth of his Daughter". His next book, based on the controversial 1925 NFL Pottsville Maroons (ESPN Books 2007) has been optioned as a movie by Sentinel Entertainment. Contact him at Dave.Fleming@espn3.com




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