Offense sinking Bucs through two weeks
The Bucs are off to a historically bad start on offense and most of the fingers are pointing at Jon Gruden and Chris Simms, writes Greg Garber.
TAMPA, Fla. -- Chris Simms, fresh from a grilling by the local media, saunters out of the locker room at the Buccaneers' new art deco facility and into the bright sun. He sees the national broadcast crew, set up on the edge of the field, waiting for answers. He sighs, his stride slows, but he keeps on coming.
It's so hot and humid on this Wednesday that 25 sultry steps will ruin a dress shirt, but Simms is disarmingly cool. He's been bred to it. His father Phil played for the New York Giants, and he tagged along whenever he could. One reporter mentions that he sometimes played catch with the youngster after Saturday morning walk-throughs.
"You had a hell of an arm when you were 7 years old," the reporter says.
Simms, smiling for the first time, answers, "Still do."
Arm strength isn't the issue these days in Tampa. The Bucs are 0-2, and while the defense is no longer dominating, the blame has been placed squarely on the anemic (some would use harsher words) offense. When you telephone the Bucs and find yourself put on hold, there is a series of radio-call touchdowns, by Cadillac Williams, Joey Galloway and Mike Alstott, circa 2005. Truth is, Tampa Bay hasn't scored one in the first two games of 2006.
Twenty offensive possessions have produced one field goal. Simms, with six interceptions, has the league's third-worst passer rating: 39.9.
"What do you want me to say?'' Gruden asked, glaring. "It's been totally disappointing, it's been eye-opening and it's been humbling.
"We can't do any worse, I know that."
Simms, always a stand-up guy, never threw three interceptions in an NFL game, and now he's done it twice in eight days.
"I think the first thing is I've got to point the finger at myself," he said. "You look at six interceptions in two games, that's going to put any offense in a tough position. I've made some stupid mistakes."
Added Gruden, "We've turned the ball over horrifically in the passing game. Six interceptions in two football games, which is a season for a lot of teams."
In Week 1, Tampa Bay lost 27-0 to the Baltimore Ravens and followed it up with a 14-3 loss at Atlanta in Week 2. Three points in the first two games is the fewest by a Bucs team since the inaugural 1976 squad that was shut out five times in an 0-14 season.
"I'm just going to say [Simms has] got to play better, and we've got to help him do that," Gruden said. "He's a great kid, he's got talent and we've got to minimize some of the impact of decision-making problems that he's had here."
In terms of wearing his emotional heart on his sleeve, Gruden might be the most transparent head coach in the NFL. Is that frustration and, on several occasions, blatant anger, as some have suggested, causing a crisis of confidence for Simms?
"I don't know what this is," said Gruden, turning and looking into the camera for sympathy. "It's like the Geraldo show here. I'm not going to sit around and critique the quarterback publicly. He's a great kid, he's struggled in two games. All we can do is push through it and keep working."
When it comes to quarterbacks, Gruden has always had a roving eye. In his first season as head coach of the Oakland Raiders (1998), he went through three starters -- Jeff George (3-4), Donald Hollas (4-2) and Wade Wilson (1-2) -- before settling on Rich Gannon the following year.
In five years in Tampa, Gruden has used five different starting quarterbacks and has not been shy about pulling the trigger if he isn't getting results.
His flickering attention span is best illustrated by a single game in 2004. Only one season and one game removed from the Bucs' Super Bowl XXXVII victory in San Diego, Gruden lost faith in Brad Johnson. In the season's second game, Johnson threw an interception with his first pass and failed to gain a first down in his first two series. With 2:44 left in the first quarter, trailing the Jaguars 7-0, Gruden yanked Johnson and replaced him with Brian Griese.
Griese was no better, going three-and-out on four straight series. The Bucs trailed 21-0 with 10:54 left in the third quarter when Gruden replaced Griese with a quarterback who had yet to throw an NFL pass. His name, of course, was Chris Simms. He played well, completing 13 of 23 passes and producing two drives that culminated in field goals.
Gruden was smitten. And while Simms eventually was lost with a shoulder injury that season, he played well down the stretch in 2005, cementing the starter's job for the 2006 season.
And now Gruden, an offensive-oriented coach with the itchy trigger finger, has no viable option other than Simms. Griese reportedly wanted to stay in Tampa, but the Bucs didn't mind when he signed a free agent contract with the Bears. Jay Fiedler, recovering from shoulder surgery, was released when he couldn't make downfield throws. Luke McCown, a promising passer who was chosen by Cleveland in the fourth round of the 2004 draft, was lost with a knee injury in minicamp.
That leaves rookie Bruce Gradkowski, a sixth-round pick from Toledo, and Tim Rattay, whose NFL career starting record is 4-12. You might think Rattay's experience would make him the choice for the backup spot, but he was designated as the emergency No. 3 quarterback the first two games.
Gruden said he hadn't considered using either backup.
"No," he said. "We don't have a lot of experience at the quarterback position, we understand that and we're going to have to work through some rough edges. It hasn't been pretty, and I take full responsibility for it. I've got to do more to help him, I know that.
"We're 0-2, Carolina's 0-2. Carolina's going to have no mercy against us Sunday, I can promise you that. So we've just got to roll up our fist and fight."
Simms was asked if he thought Gruden would stay with him as the starter.
"That remains to be seen," he said. "I think a lot of it will depend on this week and how I perform. Hopefully, I won't put him in a position where he has to make that decision."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.