More Buccaneers: David Boston's marathon
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Years ago, the chatter was that Chris Simms used to wake up his training camp roommates in the middle of the night. As a rookie, he was paired with Jim Miller, who once complained about Simms barking out orders from across the room.
Apparently, Simms, the quarterback of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, was calling out plays in his sleep.
"Jim's full of crap," Simms said recently, sitting back in his chair with a skeptical smile. "He used to say a whole lot of stuff, but I don't know how that guy could hear anything, as loud as he used to snore."
Then Simms stopped for a little reflection.
"No, I'm sure that was legitimate. I probably did do that," he said. "Man, my head was spinning. I was studying to the point where I was falling asleep with the playbook on my chest every night."
Simms' nights aren't quite that bad anymore. Yes, he still has some anxious dreams – the ones where he pulls up to the stadium parking lot in the middle of the first quarter on game day and can't even remember who he's supposed to be playing against – but those anxieties are mostly played out in his nightmares now. He believes it's a sign he's finally maturing on the field.
The Buccaneers seem to be sold on that belief, too. They've opened up the offense with the expectation that will Simms blossom into one of the league's best young quarterbacks.
"He took a team to the playoffs last year, he engineered three dramatic come-from-behind victories for us, and he has put together one unbelievable offseason," Bucs head coach Jon Gruden said. "This guy didn't just run around his block and lift weights. He was fanatical in his offseason work. This is really important to him. I just know he'll be one heck of a player as long as I don't screw it up."
That's high praise from Gruden, who just a year ago didn't seem sold on the former third-round pick's development. Even last season, when the Bucs acquired Tim Rattay from the San Francisco 49ers in October, conventional wisdom had Rattay eventually challenging Simms for the starting job. But that never materialized, as Simms gradually rounded into form and, on occasion, looked like he could make good on the talent that some scouts thought wasn't fully realized in his days at the University of Texas.
"Last year, I was confident that I knew the offense," Simms said. "But I don't think I was confident in how I could translate it to the field. That was the question in my mind. I didn't know how things were going to go over from the practice field to game day. I don't think your physical ability can flourish until your mind is totally free. And for me, I don't think that happened until the second game I played in 2005."
His debut wasn't exactly inspiring in a 15-10 loss at San Francisco, but Simms did complete 21 of 34 passes. He also felt that all important moment where the game began to slow down. Surely, there was some residual anxiety, but for the first time, Simms was concentrating on making plays work rather than just keeping them straight in his head.
Ultimately, his performance over the season's second half – when the Bucs went 6-2 and Simms threw eight touchdowns and three interceptions – convinced Gruden he had his man. Even though the Bucs were interested in keeping last year's season-opening starter Brian Griese, the signs were evident. Simms' time had come.
Just from watching two days of practice, it's easy to see the transformation from last year's training camp. Simms is getting the ball out faster and he's making better decisions. But the biggest strides may have been taken by the coaching staff, which now looks committed to letting Simms throw the ball deep this season.
"We've definitely been more aggressive," Simms said. "And, you know, we were slowly more aggressive last year, too. We threw some deep balls as the season went on. But yeah, we're going to open it up some this year."
Simms says he's over last season's "laissez faire" controversy, when former 49ers quarterback Steve Young made some highly publicized statements that suggested Simms' upbringing kept him from developing mental toughness. Young said his words were misinterpreted and that he was merely suggesting a generational gap. He also said he was going to call Simms – a connection that apparently never happened.
"Yeah, that whole thing was a little bit of a trip," Simms said. "He's a guy I met, like, two years before he said that. I have people who know him and who have met me, and they say he was really sorry and didn't mean it to come out that way. I believe it. But as far as the 'laissez faire' thing goes, I thought it was funny coming from him, a guy who grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut."
After a disappointing sophomore season, Michael Clayton looks like he has returned to his rookie form. Unlike last year, when offseason knee surgery forced Clayton to report heavy and sluggish, he looks like he has regained his explosiveness. Having Simms entering his second season as a starter should help Clayton, as well as the possibility of a more spread-out offense featuring David Boston and Joey Galloway.
The Bucs have been very pleased with three of their rookies – guard Davin Joseph, tackle Jeremy Trueblood and quarterback Bruce Gradkowski. With veteran Kenyatta Walker slowed by a knee injury, Trueblood has been getting extended work and is likely to get some preseason starts. Joseph has been rotating in with the starters and could be the first-string right guard by the time the regular season opens. And Gradkowski – perhaps the biggest surprise of the class – has been running the second team and could supplant Rattay as Simms' backup (until Jay Fiedler is healthy, anyway).
"He's got a lot of something," Gruden said of Gradkowski, the team's sixth-round pick out of Toledo. "He's got a lot of really good gifts. What he's doing right now, as a rookie against this defense, I tip my hat to him. We've been hard on him. We've been very, very impatient and persistent. At times, we've been complimentary in private quarters, but he has really done a heck of a job. His mobility, his accuracy, his ability to learn and create is something that is going to help us."
Gruden was just as complimentary of Joseph, who has showed a nasty streak and mixed it up with defensive tackle Chris Hovan on a handful of occasions.
"He's a guy that we see as the future anchor of this line," Gruden said of Joseph. "He has tremendous strength in his hands and legs. He was trained well at Oklahoma. He's going to be a factor right away."