Jon Gruden didn't have to do it. He could have allowed Tampa Bay's fans and the area's media to continue to speculate about who will play quarterback for another two months, even drag it well into the preseason. Lord knows many coaches have done it.
But, no. Gruden went on the record — twice – on Friday declaring veteran Jeff Garcia the "leader in the clubhouse" to be the starting quarterback against Seattle in September.
In golf, the "leader in the clubhouse" is the guy with the best score among the finished golfers. To hear Gruden use those words implies that at least part of the competition is over.
Say hello to Jeff Garcia, your opening-day starter.
"There's not a lot of controversy in my eyes right now," Gruden told gatherings in St. Petersburg and Tampa. "If you want to catch up to Jeff Garcia, our young quarterbacks have some work to do."
Gruden is a pretty cagey coach when it comes to dealing with the media. He's the king of "It is what it is," Gruden's pat answer when a reporter asks him to reveal something that could either be construed as tipping his hand to another team or making a choice between two different players. Gruden understands what the media does. The Pro Football Writers' Association once named him their favorite coach to quote (apparently we can't get enough of "Jiminy Christmas," another of Gruden's pet phrases). And media savvy coaches know how to use the media to their own ends.
Gruden easily could have said something less committal, something like "Hey, it's an open competition" or "Hey, both guys are looking real good. It's going to be a close race." But no, Gruden went on the record declaring Garcia the leader. In June. As in three months before the regular season.
It's not as if Gruden needs to be a carnival barker to drum up interest in the Bucs. The waiting list for season tickets to Bucs games could FILL UP Raymond James Stadium. Gruden didn't suddenly feel as if he needed to help sell some tickets.
There are two logical explanations to this. The first is obvious — Gruden is trying to motivate Chris Simms.
Simms, to be fair, probably deserves to be considered the starter right now. After all, he led the Bucs to a division title just two years ago, and missing the majority of last season really wasn't his fault (you can't expect a guy to play through a ruptured spleen, now can you?). But Gruden watched those first three games just like the rest of us, and Simms was just plain bad. All those interceptions surely linger like the odor of rancid cheese after multiple viewings — and I've seen Gruden's film room (which doubles as his office). Believe me, he's watched it over and over and over again. With tenuous job security, Gruden can ill-afford another horrible start.
Simms got the first snap of the offseason, and has worked mostly with the first-team offense. Garcia has seen plenty of work, too, but mostly with the second team. Additionally, he took some time off to get married. They both have two-year contracts for about the same money, so they're stuck with each other. So how do you think Simms felt when he opened up the paper on Saturday and saw what Gruden said.
I can't speak for Simms (no one can). But I know how I would react if I were in Simms' place …
"I'm ticked. I know Gruden's system better than any quarterback on the roster. I've won a division title. I've overcome a horrible injury. I have the best arm on the team. I signed for starter money. I do all this work and some guy Gruden used to have dinner with in Oakland after preseason games has the inside track to my job? C'mon!"
Mission accomplished, right? Gruden even threw Simms a bone later in the speech.
"That's not to say Chris Simms won't make things interesting at training camp," Gruden said.
Perhaps Gruden doesn't think he's getting what he needs out of Simms during workouts. Perhaps Garcia really has progressed in leaps and bounds in the offense. Or perhaps the taste of last year's 0-3 start — and Simms' obvious fingerprints on the affair — have soured Gruden beyond repair. That does happen, you know. It happened to Brad Johnson, the quarterback who led the Bucs to a Super Bowl title. Why shouldn't it happen to Simms?
The second reason is for the conspiracy theorists out there — there was never a competition to begin with. Gruden brought Garcia here to start, pure and simple. If that's the case, I would wonder about Gruden being a honest broker when he said earlier this offseason that there would be "competition at the position." Surely Simms is wondering about that right now. I mean, preseason is still two months away.
Obviously there's a lot of ground to cover between now and September. Countless things can happen between now and then. But certainly it's disconcerting to hear your coach say your opening-day headgear may just be a baseball cap and not a helmet. Simms, I'm certain, will rebound from the news and work harder to earn the job.
Question is, will it be enough when the leader is already in the clubhouse?
Matthew Postins covers the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for BucsBlitz.com and the Charlotte Sun-Herald in Charlotte Harbor, Fla.