A rejuvenated Jeff Garcia will start his fifth consecutive game Sunday against visiting Minnesota.
Brian Griese is almost recovered from an elbow injury. Luke McCown and rookie Josh Johnson continue to impress Gruden during Bucs practices.
Thick in the NFC playoff race at 6-3, there's no quarterback controversy in Tampa Bay.
But just wait.
That wasn't the case earlier this season, and history shows it won't stay this way for long.
Such is life under a head coach who arguably demands more from the position than any of his peers.
"One of these days, I want to be part of one of these guys completing every pass in a game," said Gruden, whose skin has turned pewter-red from all the time spent this season on the Bucs' practice field. "I love coaching quarterbacks and offensive strategy. That's how I got my start.
"I take a lot of pride in working as hard as I can to help these guys. I might drive them crazy."
Or drive them away.
Six of the nine quarterbacks Gruden has started since his 2002 arrival in Tampa Bay are no longer on the roster.
Brad Johnson, who led the Bucs to a Super Bowl title in Gruden's first season, was Tampa Bay's last 16-game starter in 2003.
While some of the high turnover stems from injuries, the changes under center also reflect Gruden's philosophy not to treat the position like a sacred cow. Garcia was reminded of that when benched after a season-opening loss to New Orleans.
Garcia was battling minor injuries, but his attitude was the bigger problem. Already bitter about his contract situation, Garcia became more upset when Tampa Bay explored a preseason trade with Green Bay for Brett Favre the year after he guided the Bucs to an NFC South title.
Those issues stuck in Garcia's craw and affected his on-field performance. The intensity and enthusiasm that helped raise the play of teammates throughout his 15-year professional career was lacking.
"I felt like I went into training camp almost tired instead of rejuvenated," Garcia said Friday after practice.
Gruden noticed and promoted Griese into the starting lineup. Suddenly, a Pro Bowl quarterback in 2007 was bumped to a third-string role. The Bucs even reportedly entertained dealing Garcia before the NFL's trade deadline.
"This is pro-football in 2008. A lot of outside forces are going to enter in," said Gruden, who was admittedly unhappy that Garcia's beefs were being expressed publicly. "The Brett Favre thing was a reality. The guy showed some interest in playing for us and we looked into the situation. We're not going to apologize for that—ever. If you saw Favre play [Thursday against New England] you wouldn't blame us.
"All I worry about is trying to put together a game plan that the quarterback is excited about and doing the best I can between the lines. If I can be a friend off the field, I try to do that, too. But there are going to be issues in every relationship."
Garcia said the demotion—even running the scout team—actually did him good. Garcia's body healed as well as the rift with Gruden.
Since Griese was hurt last month against Denver, Garcia has guided the Bucs to a 3-1 record despite Tampa Bay suffering from a rash of other offensive injuries. During that stretch, Garcia completed 70.4 percent of his passes with three touchdowns and one interception.
"To be who I needed to be, I needed my mojo back," Garcia said. "I needed my excitement, energy and enthusiasm. I needed to stop worrying about things I can't control and just take care of what I could.
"As much as I wanted to believe I was the best option and could lead this team like I did last year, (Gruden) had to make a decision and I had to deal with it. I was not happy about it initially, but we're adults and this is a business. It was a situation where we needed to find a way to work together. There were a rough couple of weeks, but things are great."
Garcia, however, might not feel the same way if Gruden treated his injured quarterbacks differently.
On many teams, a sidelined starter would reclaim that spot once healthy. Yet for the second time in two separate stints with the Bucs, Griese appears headed for a backup role once he resumes a regular practice schedule next week.
Being well aware of how Gruden—a former quarterback himself at the University of Dayton—handles his signal-callers has helped Griese approach the situation pragmatically.
"He respects people who at the end of the day get the job done," Griese said. "That's all that really matters."
Not every Bucs quarterback is as understanding, especially younger ones who lack the savvy of journeymen like Garcia and Griese.
Even when Tampa Bay appeared set at the position, Gruden has steadfastly continued an Ahab-like quest to land a bigger whale. The Bucs have more quarterbacks (four) on their current roster than any NFL team and brought six to training camp.
Within the past two years, Gruden:
- Signed Garcia as a free-agent in 2007.
- Re-acquired Griese in a March trade with Chicago.
- Traded with Denver for Jake Plummer but was unable to coax him out of retirement.
- Pursued the Favre trade until the Packers shipped him to the New York Jets.
- Cut ties with three quarterbacks (Simms, Tim Rattay and Bruce Gradkowski) who had combined for 28 starts between 2004 and 2006.
- Made Josh Johnson a 2008 fifth-round pick.
- Worked out Daunte Culpepper following his 2007 release from Miami.
If Jeff George walked into One Buccaneer Place tomorrow carrying pads and a helmet, nobody would be surprised.
"Quarterbacks can sour on (Gruden)," said Sirius NFL Radio analyst Jim Miller, a retired quarterback who was with the Bucs in 2003. "Chris Simms soured on him. Brad Johnson soured on him. Now, you have a little of that with Jeff. It's a fine line that he walks in how he treats his QBs."
Miller said the Gruden's only perfect fit at quarterback was Rich Gannon when the two were in Oakland from 1999 to 2001.
"After they got done at practice, he and Gannon would drink a 12-pack and come up with the game plan the next day," Miller said. "They would always talk Xs and Os. Jon is in his element when he's doing that and really thrives."
The duo was so close that Gruden would give Gannon only partial play calls during games because the latter was so good at quickly processing the information and conveying it in the huddle. McCown says Gruden gives Tampa Bay's current quarterbacks the formations and personnel groupings through his headset.
"Maybe to a fault, he's looking for the guy who's going to do it exactly like he would do it if he was able to play the position," said McCown, who has played with the Bucs since 2005. "That's sometimes not feasible because we all have individual minds. But that's part of developing relationships and being able to know what the other is thinking.
"You want a coach to expect perfection from you, to drive home the little details. That's what going to make you great. That's what he's done for us."
During the Favre saga, Garcia offered this analogy for Gruden's flirtation with quarterbacks: "He likes to just date. He doesn't like to marry." But maybe that's because Gruden hasn't found the "one."
The search is expected to resume in the offseason. Garcia turns 39 in February and is set to become a free agent, as is McCown. Whether the Bucs re-sign McCown could impact Griese, who is set to earn $2.1 million in 2009.
Asked if he believes Tampa Bay has a long-term starter on its current roster, Gruden said, "We might. Believe me—I'm looking for a guy like Tom Brady or Peyton Manning that we can ride for 12 years. Josh Johnson is a flashy young guy. Luke McCown is a brilliant athlete. We're going to find out about that. But right now, our objective is beat Minnesota. Garcia gives us the best chance."
At least for this week.
This article originally published on FOXSports.com.
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