Although he stopped short of declaring the competition decided, and allowed that the battle will continue into training camp, Tampa Bay Bucs coach Jon Gruden acknowledged Friday that veteran Jeff Garcia will go into the summer with a "big lead" over Chris Simms in the race for the team's starting job at quarterback.
"There's not a lot of controversy in my eyes right now," Gruden said. "If you want to catch up to Jeff Garcia, our young quarterbacks have a lot of work to do."
Gruden made the remarks, first reported by the St. Petersburg Times, during a Chamber of Commerce breakfast in Clearwater, Fla.
The comments by the Tampa Bay coach, the man who owns the only vote that counts in what was expected to be a heated competition for the No. 1 spot on the depth chart, were a bit surprising in terms of their timing. The Bucs don't begin training camp until late July and still have a three-day mandatory minicamp, set for June 19-21, to go through.
But Gruden's candid analysis of the quarterback situation is in line with suspicions held by some around the league, and even several people in the Tampa Bay organization, that Garcia is enjoying a very strong spring in his first season with the franchise.
The Bucs signed the eight-year veteran Garcia, a three-time Pro Bowl performer, to a two-year contract in March after the Philadelphia Eagles opted not to retain the man who led them into the playoffs in 2006 after replacing an injured Donovan McNabb. The contract Garcia signed, with a base value of $7 million but the potential to increase to $14.5 million with incentives, is the same deal to which the Bucs re-signed Simms in December.
One advantage Garcia has over the five other quarterbacks on the roster is a familiarity with the shotgun offense, which Gruden has never used before, but is installing this spring. But it is his overall performance this spring in general, Gruden said, that has been impressive and put him in the strongest position heading into camp.
"He understands the position," Gruden said of Garcia. "He's moved offenses wherever he has been. And right now, Jeff Garcia has a big lead, to me, on the quarterback position. He brings a lot of juice and enthusiasm to our offensive team."
Garcia, 37, will be playing with his fifth different franchise in five years in 2007. He forged a 5-1 record in six starts with the Eagles last season after replacing McNabb, and rallied the club to the division title, while throwing 10 touchdown passes and just two interceptions.
For his career, Garcia has completed 1,811 of 2,973 passes for 20,385 yards, with 136 touchdown passes and 73 interceptions. He has three seasons of 3,000-plus passing yards and two campaigns in which he threw more than 30 touchdown passes. In stints with San Francisco (1999-2003), where he enjoyed much of his success, Cleveland (2004), Detroit (2005) and Philadelphia (2006), he has appeared in 99 games and started 92 of them.
Simms, 26, started 10 games for Tampa Bay in 2005 and piloted the Bucs to a playoff berth. But he struggled in the first three contests of 2006, losing all three while throwing just one touchdown pass and seven interceptions, then sustained a season-ending injury. Simms suffered internal injuries in a Sept. 24 loss to Carolina and surgeons were forced after the game perform a splenectomy.
The Bucs eventually placed Simms on the injured reserve list. Forced to play rookie Bruce Gradkowski as the starter much of the season, Tampa Bay ranked 29th in total offense in '06.
A four-year veteran, Simms has said he is healthy again, but conceded earlier this week that he has not yet regained his timing. The former University of Texas star, a Bucs' third-round pick in the 2003 draft, has started 15 games and made 19 appearances.
"I'm not discounting that it will be competitive in camp. . . . But Garcia is clearly the leader in the clubhouse right now, and we are excited about that." Gruden said of the quarterback battle.
Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com