By Leonard Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 3, 2006
TAMPA, Jan. 2 -- Tampa Bay Coach Jon Gruden wasn't complaining Monday morning when he said, "We aren't perfect by any stretch of the imagination." He was simply being realistic about his NFC South Division championship team that had the best single-season turnaround in franchise history.
The Buccaneers (11-5) relied on the emergence of third-year quarterback Chris Simms, the league's top defense and a rebuilt offensive line to win four of their last five games and erase the memories of a 5-11 season. Tampa Bay heads into Saturday's playoff game against the Washington Redskins with six victories by seven points or less and three of its last six by three points or less.
A 36-35 victory over the Redskins on Nov. 13 clearly marked a turning point in the Bucs' season, ending a two-game losing streak on a day when Simms completed 15 of 29 throws, three for touchdowns, a career high, and had no interceptions. For the season, Simms has completed 61 percent of his passes, with 10 touchdowns and seven interceptions, and has an 81.4 passer rating in his first year as a starter.
Simms said that the addition of quarterbacks coach Paul Hackett, a longtime specialist in the West Coast-style offense employed by the Bucs, has been critical in his development.
"He's been huge for me," Simms said. "He's my third quarterback coach in three years and he's really the first one who had a lot of experience with this offense. The offense is all about timing. You've got to give your receivers a chance to get open and downfield, and he's taught me so much."
Gruden also has played a significant role in Simms's emergence as the team's quarterback of the future.
"I stepped in there and he pretty much kept the offense the same," Simms said. "He expected a lot of me, and that's what's been great for us. He had the confidence in me to get the job done. And we've just kind of found ways to win these games."
Simms's play, particularly his late-game poise, has been one of the major reasons for the turnaround. The 6-foot-4, 220-pound son of former Giants quarterback Phil Simms took over as the starter when veteran Brian Griese suffered a season-ending knee injury in the sixth game.
On Monday, Gruden was effusive in his praise of the 25-year-old quarterback.
"We always said Chris would get better with opportunities to get better," he said. That first Redskins game, "as dramatic as it was and the fact that we won and did some good things, certainly helped his process.
"I can't tell you how proud I am of him. He's done some really good things. He's got great resolve, a great kid. I love watching him on the sidelines with his teammates. He's with the receivers, with the offensive line, he's rooting for the defense, he's in my ear. He's got the pizazz about him on game day that I'm real comfortable with. He's a leader, and that alone has helped us as much as anything."
Few expected the Bucs to have this sort of success when the team gathered in training camp last July. But the infusion of other new young talent, with 12 draft picks over the last two years on the active roster, and the addition of several moderately priced free agents who played significant roles, transformed the franchise into a playoff team in Gruden's fourth season here.
"We talked to our rookie class when they got here," Gruden said Sunday after his team's 27-13 victory over the New Orleans Saints clinched the division title. "We told them: 'Don't plan on coming in here and redshirting. Don't plan on coming in here and getting do-overs. You guys are going to start and you guys are going to help us win.' We just kept grinding on them."
The defense, led by Simeon Rice's 14 sacks, provided the muscle, finishing the season No. 1 in the NFL in yards allowed.
At the start of the year, the Bucs had three first-time starters on the offensive line, a unit that posted another franchise first -- all five started every game this season. No wonder tackle Kenyatta Walker, a major question mark after a dreadful 2004 season, couldn't help but take a verbal jab at preseason naysayers in his team's locker room Sunday.
"We came into the year with people saying: 'What are we going to do? We only got Kenyatta Walker, who holds all the time, false-starts, he's the worst,' " Walker said Sunday. " 'The offensive line is the worst in the division.' We had no chance, bottom of the pack. Now we're back on top. To me, it's time for people to start talking about this front five."
The Bucs had other concerns on offense. They were starting a rookie running back, Carnell "Cadillac" Williams, who answered most questions immediately when he became the first back in league history to begin his career with three straight 100-yard games. He tailed off because of injuries midway through the season but finished with style, setting a team rookie rushing record with 1,178 yards and an average of 4.1 yards per carry.
Veteran linebacker Derrick Brooks, known as the team's godfather of defense, actually refused to call Williams by his flashy nickname in training camp, saying at the time he wanted to make certain the rookie deserved the attention he was drawing. On Monday, Brooks said he now has no problems calling Williams "Cadillac."
"He earned it," Brooks said.