Garcia's skills, intensity suit Gruden's style
Jon Gruden has always worked well with veteran QBs. That's why he's confident the Bucs can flourish with Jeff Garcia under center, writes Jeffri Chadiha.
We didn't need to wait this long to know Jeff Garcia would be favored to become Tampa Bay's starting quarterback. We should've known it from the moment head coach Jon Gruden started coveting the nine-year veteran during the unrestricted free-agency period.
All you had to understand about Garcia is that he's 37 years old. To skeptics, that age raises the question of whether Garcia is past his prime. To Gruden, it means Garcia is his kind of quarterback.
Although Gruden doesn't like admitting it, he's always at his best when he has an old signal-caller running his team. He turned around a bottom-dwelling Oakland Raiders team in the late '90s by convincing owner Al Davis to sign a 32-year-old journeyman named Rich Gannon. He won his only Super Bowl in Tampa Bay back in 2002, when Brad Johnson, an 11-year veteran at the time, was leading his squad.
Now, I'm not saying Garcia is going to perform miracles with a Bucs team that won four games last season, but Tampa Bay certainly will be better off with him under center.
What you have to realize about Gruden is that he's best able to motivate his team when he has a quarterback who approaches the game with the same relentless zeal he possesses. That level of passion often is going to come from quarterbacks who've been beaten down and overlooked during their careers. Garcia, for example, played in Canada for five seasons. Gannon was asked to play defensive back when he was a rookie with the New England Patriots. Johnson was a ninth-round pick of the Minnesota Vikings in 1992.
When quarterbacks face those types of challenges early in their careers, it makes them more eager to prove themselves as they age. It also means they're better equipped to deal with the endless demands of a coach like Gruden.
"I've learned that you really have to match his intensity," Garcia says. "He's going to grind you and stay on your back, but you have to take everything he says with a grain of salt. I really think older quarterbacks can understand him better than younger guys because they're not shell-shocked by his demeanor. They're able to meet his challenge head-on while a younger guy might take it personally."
The key point to take away from Garcia's comments is the pressure Gruden puts on his quarterbacks. He truly believes he can take any signal-caller with a decent amount of ability and turn him into a productive leader. It's the reason he believed in an inconsistent fifth-year veteran such as Chris Simms, whom Garcia apparently has passed on the Bucs' depth chart (according to Gruden's recent comments).
It's also why Gruden felt confident enough to make rookie Bruce Gradkowski his second-string quarterback last season, a move that resulted in Gradkowski starting 11 games after Simms suffered a season-ending spleen injury. In Gruden's mind, all these younger players had to do was follow his direction and they'd eventually prosper in his system.
The problem, of course, is that playing quarterback in the NFL isn't that simple. It can take years for a player at that position to develop into a dependable leader, and Gruden never has been known for his patience. Older quarterbacks, however, can make Gruden's life much easier. They can improvise when a play breaks down, as Gannon often did during his career and Garcia most likely will have to do behind a rickety offensive line. They can put players in the right positions when defenses throw subtle adjustments at them. Simply put, they can handle the pressure that comes with the job.
Garcia acknowledges that much of his success last season with Philadelphia came from understanding his weaknesses better and avoiding the mistakes he'd made earlier in his career. He adds that older quarterbacks learn how to prepare better, whether it's by scrutinizing film more thoroughly or by getting more sleep during the week.
There's also the distraction factor.
"When you get older, you don't care as much about what people think about you publicly," Garcia says. "You only worry about what's important to you, and that helps a lot."
Maybe that's why Gruden is holding out hope that former Denver Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer, whom the Bucs acquired in a trade earlier this year, will change his mind about retiring. If Gruden can find two 30-something quarterbacks, he could greatly improve his odds of avoiding another losing season, one that ultimately might lead to his dismissal. What he can afford least is another situation like what happened last season, when Simms' injury left the team woefully unprepared to handle the adversity that followed.
In fact, Garcia already has been impressed by how much Gruden has helped elevate his aptitude for the game.
"I feel like I've been challenged so much more from a mental standpoint," says Garcia, who has played for four other NFL teams, three of which ran a version of the West Coast offense similar to Gruden's system. "Maybe I've taken for granted that I've known this offense so well that there weren't any new heights for me to reach in it. But he really tests me. He challenges me every day we're on the field. And if I'm not on point, I feel like I'm not just letting myself down. I'm letting the whole team down."
That's exactly what Gruden wants to happen. The more he can motivate Garcia, the better the coach is going to feel about his chances this fall. It's a fact that just can't be denied. As long as a talented quarterback is on the downhill side of his career, he'll always be worth plenty to a coach like Gruden.
Jeffri Chadiha is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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