Bucs, Titans Gamble on Untested QBs

By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 15, 2006; 11:36 AM

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are Chris Simms's team now.

After three seasons of wavering about whether they could rely on the gifted but erratic young quarterback, the Buccaneers have committed to Simms. He got them into the playoffs last season after Brian Griese suffered a season-ending knee injury, and he will enter this coming season as the unquestioned starter. The Buccaneers released Griese after being unable to agree to a restructured contract with him, and kept Simms off the restricted free agent market by signing him to a one-year, $2.1 million contract.

Simms, who turns 26 in August, had good and bad moments last season. He played 11 games and made 10 starts during the regular season, and threw for 2,035 yards and 10 touchdowns. But he also threw seven interceptions and was sacked 29 times, and there were moments when he looked just as lost and overmatched as ever. He played poorly in the Buccaneers' playoff loss to the Washington Redskins. Now it's time to find out if he can succeed without Coach Jon Gruden having a viable Plan B at the position. Neither Tim Rattay nor Luke McCown qualifies.

The Buccaneers will hope that Carnell (Cadillac) Williams can stay healthier than he did as a rookie, and try to build their offense around the second-year tailback. The offense stayed mostly intact during the offseason, although the club did do some reshuffling along the line. Matt Stinchcomb was released, and fellow tackle Todd Steussie left as a free agent. The team re-signed tackle Kenyatta Walker and added guard Toniu Fonoti and tackle Torrin Tucker in free agency, and used its first-round draft pick on Oklahoma guard Davin Joseph.

Simms will need a better season out of wide receiver Michael Clayton, who struggled with injuries and inconsistency last season after being dazzling as a rookie in 2004. Gruden and General Manager Bruce Allen took a chance and signed former standout wide receiver David Boston, whose career is in ruins after he once was a rising star for the Arizona Cardinals. He's totaled only 106 catches over the past four seasons for the Cardinals, San Diego Chargers and Miami Dolphins, and he was suspended by the league in 2004 for a violation of the steroids policy. Boston said at the time that he didn't take steroids but tested positive for a related substance.

The defense remains solid, although safety Dexter Jackson exited in free agency and linebacker Derrick Brooks, end Simeon Rice and cornerback Ronde Barber will slow down at some point. The Buccaneers added linebacker Jamie Winborn, formerly of the Jacksonville Jaguars, in free agency.

This remains a good, playoff-contending team in a very solid division. The Carolina Panthers reached the NFC title game last season and have gotten better, and the New Orleans Saints have made some serious upgrades. The Atlanta Falcons are convinced they'll return to contender status. If Simms comes through, the Buccaneers probably are on at least even footing with every other team in the NFC South except the Panthers, and a second-place finish probably would be good enough for a spot in the playoffs.

McNair's Ungraceful Departure Could Haunt Titans

Steve McNair deserved better.

The veteran quarterback didn't necessarily deserve a job in Tennessee if the Titans no longer wanted him. He didn't deserve to be paid a $9 million salary for the upcoming season if the Titans didn't want to pay him that much.

But he deserved not to be locked out of the team's training facility, and he deserved a quicker decision about his future with the organization than the Titans made.

The Titans finally said their farewell to one of the greatest players in their franchise's history when they traded McNair to the Baltimore Ravens last week for a fourth-round draft choice next year. Both sides were ready to move on after an offseason of conflict and uncertainty in which the NFL Players Association filed a grievance on McNair's behalf after the Titans barred him from working out at their headquarters, fearful that he might suffer an injury that would leave the team liable for his full salary this coming season. The Titans now have Billy Volek to be their starting quarterback temporarily while prized rookie Vince Young readies himself to play, and McNair can try to get the Ravens back into the playoffs.

It was, perhaps, the right outcome, but done the wrong way. The problems arose because McNair and the Titans had agreed to a contract in which McNair would count a ridiculously cumbersome $23.46 million against next season's salary cap, even after the club declined to exercise a $50 million option bonus in the deal earlier this offseason. The Titans indicated to McNair and his agent, Bus Cook, that the deal would have to be renegotiated if McNair was to remain with the team for the 2006 season. But then the club implemented its lockout, an inflammatory move that seemed all but certain to be overturned by an arbitrator, given that NFL teams usually do everything they can to get all players under contract to participate in offseason workouts that are officially listed as voluntary.

If the Titans were uncomfortable allowing McNair to lift a few weights under the terms of the contract, then why did they agree to the contract in the first place? It was Terrell Owens vs. the Philadelphia Eagles, only in reverse. If two parties agree to a contract, then they should live up to the terms of it, whether they have come to find the terms disagreeable or not. Owens couldn't abide by that rule, and neither could the Titans.

Arbitrator John Feerick conducted a seven-hour hearing on the union's grievance, and ruled that the Titans had to allow McNair to work out at their facility as long as he was under contract to them. The Titans and the NFL, which argued the team's side of the case before Feerick, claimed they'd achieved some triumphs in the technicalities of Feerick's ruling, trumpeting the fact that Feerick had not ordered McNair to be released and saying that the arbitrator's decision had been based on fine points of Tennessee law more than on the sport's collective bargaining agreement. But the bottom-line outcome was that the union had won, and the Titans traded McNair.

McNair emerged in fine shape, getting a new contract with the Ravens that pays him an $11 million signing bonus and a $1 million salary this year. The Titans' approach didn't hurt McNair financially, but their tactics still were made to look unnecessarily combative. They got the same fourth-round draft pick from the Ravens that they could have gotten if they'd traded McNair to Baltimore on draft weekend. That's when the move should have been made. The Titans knew by then that there was little to no chance of agreeing to a new contract with McNair, and they knew they'd gotten Young to be their long-term answer at quarterback.

Volek gives the Titans a sometimes-prolific passer to bridge the gap between McNair and Young. He's capable of putting up some big numbers - as he did in 2004, when he threw for 2,486 yards while playing only 10 games and making eight starts.

But Young is the future, and he will play when he's ready. The Titans got him with the third overall selection in the draft after considerable internal debate. Coach Jeff Fisher and offensive coordinator Norm Chow, with their USC connections, apparently preferred Matt Leinart to Young but were overruled by either General Manager Floyd Reese or owner Bud Adams, depending on whom you ask. Young was the swing-for-the-fences pick. He could be an unbelievable quarterback who revolutionizes the game - a Michael Vick with a passing touch. Or he could be a bust, a great athlete but an unorthodox thrower unsuited to an intricate pro-style offense.

The Titans also made a risky pick in the second round by taking USC tailback LenDale White, a powerhouse runner in college whose draft stock plummeted because of a hamstring injury this spring and questions about his work habits.

The Titans lost center Justin Hartwig, linebacker Brad Kassell and safety Tank Williams in free agency, and offensive tackle Brad Hopkins retired. But Reese kept defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch off the free agent market by signing him to a four-year, $22 million contract extension after his 12-1/2-sack season, and the Titans made some significant upgrades in free agency by signing wide receiver David Givens, linebacker David Thornton and safety Chris Hope. They signed center Kevin Mawae after he was released by the New York Jets to replace Hartwig.

This is a team that should be better than it was last season, even without McNair. But the awkwardly handled, graceless exit of a very accomplished quarterback overshadows much of the good that was done by the club this offseason.

Around the League

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger reportedly could be released today from Mercy Hospital in Pittsburgh, three days after being injured in a motorcycle accident and undergoing seven hours of surgery for multiple facial fractures.

Roethlisberger is eating soft foods and is meeting and talking with visitors. A broken jaw was among his injuries, but his doctors said his jaw did not have to be wired shut ..... .

Guard Bennie Anderson, released by Buffalo last week, agreed to a contract with Miami ..... .

The San Francisco 49ers signed three of their draft choices - tight end Delanie Walker and defensive end Melvin Oliver, both sixth-rounders, and safety Vickiel Vaughn, a seventh-rounder.

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