Gruden, Garcia share grinder's mentality

Under pressure to win, Bucs coach Jon Gruden is leaning heavily a quarterback who prides himself on his ability to grind out victories, writes Len Pasquarelli.

Originally Published: July 30, 2007
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- In the fertile but sometimes fractured mind of Jon Gruden, there are probably myriad reasons why he twice attempted to land quarterback Jeff Garcia to run his offense.

What motivated Gruden? Garcia possesses many of the same attributes as former NFL most valuable player Rich Gannon, arguably Gruden's favorite from among all of the league quarterbacks with whom he has worked.

Observation deck
Bucs Second-year wideout Maurice Stovall looked impressive and appears to be playing his way into a starting job. Check out what else Len Pasquarelli observed at Bucs camp.
• Observation deck
• Training camp index

But to Garcia, signed by the Bucs as a free agent in March after the Philadelphia Eagles decided not to keep him around for 2007, there's another element at work, too. And it has more to do with something he shares with Gruden than with Gannon.

"I'm a grinder," said Garcia following Sunday morning's first full-contact practice of training camp here. "I think one of my strongest traits is that I find ways to get things done, no matter what. And I think [Gruden] is a grinder, too. I really think he respects that."

And so in a season in which Gruden needs to grind out a few more victories than the 6.8 wins Tampa Bay has averaged in the four years since he led the franchise to a Super Bowl XXXVII championship, the Bucs' coach appears to be relying heavily on a like-minded individual to help bail water from a sinking pirates' ship. Although he shrugs off suggestions that Tampa Bay has to win this year in order for him to retain his job -- the Bucs are 27-37 since their Super Bowl victory over the Oakland Raiders and have been back to the playoffs just once -- Gruden is too street savvy to not be aware of rumors that his job is on the line in 2007.

Like most coaches backed into a corner, Gruden prefers to surround himself with people he feels he can trust. And to Gruden, who discards quarterbacks like most people do Kleenex, that starts with having a tough, veteran signal-caller to cover his back for him, a guy who won't blink when confronting adversity.

A grinder.

Enter Garcia, 37, who despite a résumé that includes three Pro Bowl appearances, five seasons with more than 2,500 passing yards, and the fourth-lowest interception percentage in NFL history, is playing for his fifth different franchise in five years. Even after registering a 5-1 record in Philadelphia in 2006, and rallying the Eagles to a division title following the torn anterior cruciate ligament that prematurely ended Donovan McNabb's season, Garcia found himself on the open market.

Jeff Garcia
AP Photo/John RaouxJeff Garcia hasn't enjoyed much success in his career against Favre.

It didn't take long, however, for the eight-year veteran to find a new home. Because Gruden -- who vigorously pursued Garcia as an unrestricted free agent in 2004, when the quarterback eventually opted to sign with Cleveland instead -- found himself, as always, seeking out another veteran to add to his depth chart.

Gruden loves collecting quarterbacks. He's apt to have more on his depth chart than you've got lint balls in your drier, and the current Tampa Bay roster includes five. That's counting the supposedly retired Jake Plummer, acquired in a trade from Denver on the same day the Bucs signed Garcia, but so far impervious to Gruden's entreaties to leave behind the fishing in Idaho and return to the NFL battles for another season.

Last year's quarterback flavor of the month for Gruden was Chris Simms, about whom he noted in training camp then: "He's going to be a great one … unless we screw him up." It's a well-practiced, tired and hackneyed line for Gruden, broken out again on Sunday when discussing the merits of second-year right guard Davin Joseph.

Gruden didn't so much screw up Simms, though, as did the Carolina defense. In a Sept. 24 game at Raymond James Stadium, the Panthers pummeled Simms, causing internal injuries and forcing an emergency splenectomy just hours after the contest. Simms didn't play again the rest of the season and now, coming off a spring in which his throwing mechanics seemed to disintegrate and a summer in which he clearly has fallen out of favor here, might never play for Gruden again.

Even before the Bucs had finished their spring minicamps, Gruden all but declared Garcia his starter. Simms, who has to be frustrated by the situation but continues to battle through this difficult time, gets very little work in "team" drills. And Gruden looks to Garcia, who hasn't started more than 10 games in a season since 2003, his final year of a successful run in San Francisco, to provide the Bucs a leader.

"He's like barbed wire, you know?" said Gruden on Sunday morning. "Everything he does, it's got an edge to it. Players take to that. They like it. And he's just a guy who manages to get it done, to make a play even when there might not necessarily be one there to make. He's a guy who teammates take to, because he gives you hope."

Gruden is hoping that, for him, the third time with Garcia is a charm. Yeah, we said the third time. In the late 1990s, when Gruden was the head coach in Oakland and Garcia was desperately trying to nudge his way into the NFL after five seasons playing in the Canadian Football League, the quarterback and his father, who had been phoning teams on his son's behalf, sought a tryout with the Raiders. But the Raiders had Gannon at the time and Gruden was not, in a bit of an upset given his affinity for numbers at the position, inclined to add another quarterback to his roster.

This time around, though, Gruden is the one acting with some sense of urgency. Garcia, on the other hand, is acting like a guy thrilled to be back in a position of prominence.

He endured miserable seasons in Cleveland (2004) and Detroit (2005), and signed on with the Eagles last year, he acknowledged, assuming his tenure as a starter in the NFL was over. It was a point in his career where football was no longer fun, and where he determined he would view his career in one-season snapshots, thinking every year would be his last one. But the injury to McNabb provided him an opportunity to resuscitate the Eagles and to resurrect himself.

Now he's got another salvage job on his hands and he's facing it the only way he knows how -- putting his head down, moving forward, doing whatever has to be done.

"I think when you've had some adversity in your life, not just on the field, it helps you to appreciate things a lot more, to not take so much for granted," said Garcia, who has lost siblings at an early age and didn't begin playing in the NFL until he was 29. "You're more passionate about everything you do.

"You grind a little harder."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer with ESPN.com.