Griese's experience in the West Coast stabilizes a shaky position in Tampa.
at Green Bay
at N.Y. Jets
at San Francisco
at New Orleans
at New England
Running back Cadillac Williams caught a pass in the flat, turned upfield and made a quick move inside that left the two defenders grasping at air. True, it was only a training camp practice, but the move by the 5'11", 217-pounder started a Did you see that? buzz and raised hopes in Tampa that the lightning-fast rookie whose 46 career touchdowns at Auburn broke Bo Jackson's school record, will bring big-play flash to an offense that could use it.
A rejuvenated Brian Griese and a new Cadillac will drive the offense, but the lanes may be clogged because of a suspect offensive line
Brian Griese arrived in Tampa last year with no expectations, and who could blame him? The previous two seasons he had made unceremonious exits from other teams -- first, from Denver, where as recently as 2000 he had gone to the Pro Bowl, and then from Miami, where his father, Bob, had had a Hall of Fame career but Brian's fizzled after only five starts. With the Bucs he started the season as the third-string passer, behind starter Brad Johnson and the team's quarterback of the future, Chris Simms.
But as so often happens in life, things have a way of turning out for the best. Johnson struggled at the outset, Simms replaced him in Week 5 and promptly got hurt, then Griese took the field and went on to have his best season since his Pro Bowl year. Already familiar with the West Coast offense from his days in Denver, Griese showed quick mastery of coach Jon Gruden's playbook; he completed an NFL-best 69.3% of his passes and set a franchise record with a quarterback rating of 97.5. Last March he was rewarded with a five-year, $32 million contract.
Still, Griese talks like a man whose expectations aren't much higher than they were entering last season, even though Johnson was released in March. "In this day and age you have to prove yourself every year," he says. "The contract is nice. But at the same time, if I were to go out and fall on my face, that contract wouldn't be worth the paper it's written on." Simms, meanwhile, remains in the picture. Even after Griese's performance last year, Gruden gave Simms the start in the meaningless regular-season finale, a 12-7 loss to Arizona, and during training camp Simms was getting more snaps than Griese. "I'm glad," Griese says. "I'm 30. I need the rest."
The Bucs need Griese not only to give them a repeat of his 2004 performance -- minus the occasional late-game interception -- but also to provide leadership on an offense dotted with players inexperienced in Gruden's system. Gruden believes that rookie Carnell (Cadillac) Williams, the fifth pick in this year's draft, will be the electrifying runner the team hasn't had since Warrick Dunn left as a free agent in 2002. Second-year wideout Michael Clayton promises to improve on an outstanding rookie season in which he had 80 receptions for 1,193 yards and seven touchdowns. "My confidence is sky-high," Clayton says. "I'm a guy who's never satisfied. I always want to get better. My own expectations are higher than anyone else's expectations, and I'm not there yet." Joining Clayton and 11-year veteran Joey Galloway at receiver is free-agent pickup Ike Hilliard, late of the Giants. There are two new tight ends: Anthony Becht, formerly of the Jets, is an excellent blocker, and Alex Smith, a rookie third-round choice out of Stanford, can stretch the field.
The sticking point is the line, which last year allowed 44 sacks and was a big reason Tampa Bay had the 29th-ranked rushing offense. Left tackle Derrick Deese, a 14-year veteran, missed all of camp with an injured left foot, so the Bucs will have to protect Griese's blind side with Anthony Davis, an undrafted free agent who spent 2003 on the practice squad and last year made two appearances in relief. The starters at guard may be in flux as well. Matt Stinchcomb, a seven-year vet, has the most experience, but may have to give way to Dan Buenning, a rookie fourth-round pick out of Wisconsin, on the left side. Sean Mahan, a third-year player who made eight starts last season for injured center John Wade, will go at right guard. Wade has recovered from a dislocated left knee, but foreshadowing the potential for a shaky line was the re-signing of Todd Steussie on Aug. 7, just 10 days after the team had released him. A two-time Pro Bowl tackle in his salad days, Steussie, 34, was originally signed as a free agent in 2004, then had a disastrous season, which included allowing the sack that sidelined Simms.
If necessary, Griese is prepared to take the punishment. After being sacked 26 times in his 11 games last year, he spent the off-season in the most rigorous weight-lifting program of his career, adding 10 pounds of muscle. "You have to be in good physical condition to take that pounding and to be there every week and avoid injury," Griese says. "I needed to do everything I could to make sure I was in the best physical shape I could be."
He might be in for another beating, but at least this time he'll be expecting it.