Garcia insists he's ready, but Gruden takes a cautious approach

Updated: December 8, 2007, 1:11 PM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

Despite quarterback Jeff Garcia's contention that he is sufficiently recovered from a back injury to return to the lineup, Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden remains uncertain about who will start when his team meets the Houston Texans on Sunday in a game that could secure the NFC South title for the Buccaneers.

Jeff Garcia

Garcia

Garcia practiced on a limited basis most of the week, then skipped the Friday walk-through session, muddying the quarterback picture a bit.

The expectation of most players is that Garcia, who missed last week's victory at New Orleans, will start. But Gruden has adopted an uncharacteristically cautious stance on his quarterback, and insisted he won't make a decision between Garcia and Luke McCown until Sunday morning.

"We're going to wait until we get to Houston," Gruden said. "It's a day-to-day operation right now. Jeff is getting better. But we'll wait until Sunday when we get to the stadium."

Some of the factors that might enter into Gruden's decision are the condition of the field and whether the retractable roof at Reliant Stadium is open.

Garcia, 37, started the first 11 games of the season. But the nine-year veteran and three-time Pro Bowl performer -- signed as an unrestricted free agent in the offseason -- suffered a bruised back on the first play of a Nov. 25 victory against the Washington Redskins. He sat out most of that game, returned briefly in the fourth quarter, but was ineffective.

McCown started last week against the Saints and played well in a 27-23 victory, completing 29 of 37 passes for 313 yards, with two touchdown passes and an interception.

In practice this week, McCown continued to take some snaps with the first-unit offense. The fourth-year veteran, who spent most of the season at No. 3 on the depth chart, has gained the trust of the coaches and his teammates.

But the more mobile Garcia, if healthy, is the man Gruden prefers running his offense, and the much-traveled veteran, playing with his fifth franchise in five seasons, brings stability, leadership and improvisational skills to the Tampa Bay lineup. In his 11 games, Garcia has completed 182 of 282 passes for 2,135 yards, with 11 touchdown passes and only three interceptions, for a passer rating of 96.0.

Winners of four straight games, the Bucs will clinch their second division championship in three seasons if they defeat the Texans.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.