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Ask Jon Gruden about Jeff Garcia, the 37-year-old quarterback who helped transform a flaccid Tampa Bay Buccaneers team into a Super Bowl contender, and the Bucs' high-energy coach flashes his trademark smirk while dropping the biggest of names.
"Jeff Garcia is a large man," Gruden says, enunciating each syllable as if it were part of a game-deciding play call. "He's Shaquille O'Neal. He's a man's man, and a hell of a player. He's enormous, on the inside. The 49ers know it. Philly knows it. Hell, Saskatchewan knows it, too."
To understand Garcia's importance in Tampa, where the Buccaneers will host the New York Giants on Sunday in a first-round playoff game, consider the way Gruden approached the team's final two games after clinching the NFC South title. Garcia played a little less than two quarters of the Bucs' game against the 49ers in San Francisco and was held out of the regular-season finale against Carolina.
Tampa Bay (9-7) lost twice, essentially blowing off any chance of catching the Seattle Seahawks for the NFC's No. 3 playoff seed, but the fine china remained intact.
For this team to have a shot at doing anything in the postseason, one JG desperately needs the other.
Garcia had a stellar season, completing nearly 64 percent of his passes while throwing 13 touchdowns and just four interceptions. His passer rating (94.6) was the league's seventh-best – but numbers don't tell the true story of his impact.
The Bucs made the playoffs in 2005, but '06 was a disaster, with then-rookie Bruce Gradkowski stepping in at quarterback after a season-ending spleen injury to young starter Chris Simms. Tampa Bay finished 4-12, its worst season since 1991. Gruden, four seasons removed from guiding the franchise to its lone Super Bowl championship in his first year with the Bucs, was rumored to need a playoff appearance in '07 to avoid losing his job.
Garcia, fresh off a career revival with the Philadelphia Eagles last season, showed up and made everything all right.
"Jeff Garcia has been the biggest difference on our team this year," veteran cornerback Ronde Barber says. "He's allowed Coach Gruden to relax a little more, because he has that type of comfort at the position he hasn't had in recent years."
As he did with Rich Gannon in Oakland, Gruden found that his offense functions far better when a fellow grinder is running it. The prickly Gannon and the more outgoing Garcia aren't exactly alike – "Everyone is tempted to make that comparison," says general manager Bruce Allen, another Raiders refugee, "but they're really different guys" – but there are some important parallels. In both cases, competitive fire, toughness, intelligence and mobility were enough to overcome below-average arm strength and other perceived necessities at the position.
It's just that, with Garcia, Gruden figured it out belatedly.
"The first time I met him?" Garcia asks. "It didn't go so well."
Nine years ago, in late December 1998, Gruden had just completed his first year as the Raiders' coach while Garcia was home visiting his family in Gilroy, a rural Northern California town that is the world's self-proclaimed garlic capital. Garcia had just finished his fifth season in the Canadian Football League, having led the Calgary Stampeders to the Grey Cup Championship a month earlier. (He never played for Saskatchewan, though Gruden probably isn't overly concerned with the distinction.)
Gruden offered a tryout, and Garcia woke up early one gloomy morning and made the roughly 70-mile drive to the team's facility in Alameda.
"It was this bad, overcast, soggy day, and I went out there in front of the entire coaching staff," Garcia recalls. "He had me run a 40, which was not good – I didn't even break five-flat. Then he had me do things that were not necessarily my strength, throwing to spots and assessing my arm. And the receivers, I think, were equipment guys.
"He wasn't getting me at the top of my game, either. I had spent a month celebrating the Grey Cup and wasn't in the best of shape. And I had no idea what an NFL workout was about."
It didn't shock Garcia, then, when Gruden passed, but after the ill-fated workout, things worked out for both men.
Gannon emerged as an eventual MVP in Oakland, as Gruden transformed the Raiders into a winner before bolting to Tampa Bay and beating the Raiders in Super Bowl XXXVII.
Garcia, on the recommendation of former 49ers coaching legend Bill Walsh, showed enough in a subsequent workout for San Francisco to earn a spot on the team. He took over for Steve Young early that season after the future Hall of Famer suffered a career-ending concussion, then made the Pro Bowl after each of the next three campaigns.
As each man thrived in the Bay Area, Garcia and Gruden eventually bonded. When the quarterback became available as a free agent following a contract dispute with the Niners in the '04 offseason, he flirted with the Bucs – at one point his father, Bob, told a newspaper his son would be coming to Tampa – before signing with Cleveland.
"We hit it off a long time ago," Garcia says of Gruden. "As much as he didn't care for me after that first workout, he grew to appreciate me. It was just a matter of time before we got together."
In this case, it took another three years. Shaky efforts with the Browns and Lions in consecutive seasons put Garcia's career in a deep freeze, and he signed a one-year deal with the Eagles as a backup for the '06 season. After Donovan McNabb went down with a season-ending knee injury in mid-November, Garcia rallied Philly to six consecutive victories and into the playoffs, and his stock rose again.
Free once more, Garcia signed a reported two-year, $7 million contract with the Bucs in early March – on the same day the team acquired the rights to Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer in a trade. Gruden was unable to talk Plummer out of retirement, and Garcia had a relatively easy time winning the starting job over Simms (who was still recovering from his injury and didn't play in '07), Gradkowski and Luke McCown.
"It was the perfect time to join up and create a positive force (with Gruden)," Garcia says. "I love his intensity, his enthusiasm – just everything about him. He expects a lot out of himself, and it really carries over onto the whole team from a personality standpoint."
As for that awful first impression, Gruden blames himself.
"I didn't spend enough time with him that day," the coach says. "If I had sat down with him and gotten to know him, I'd have understood, and we'd have gotten him then. But I was clueless.
"That's why Bill Walsh is in the Hall of Fame and I'm a slap-dick."