Luke McCown experienced the kind of play that most quarterbacks live for, even if it was only during a morning workout at training camp.
McCown unloaded a bomb to wide receiver David Boston Saturday morning. And it was a BOMB, one of those oooh and ahhh passes that puts the crowd on the edge of its seats and leaves it wanting more. In this case, the ball traveled about 65 yards.
There's a natural high to that sort of play, McCown said.
"To get a first down alone in this league is hard enough," McCown said. "So when you can cover 40 yards in one play that's huge for your offense."
The pass sounded off an alarm in the quarterback race. Perhaps McCown is a new contender, now that his body is finally right — and now that Chris Simms' body is suddenly struggling.
Put yourself in McCown's shoes for a moment. Honestly, he should have been in Bruce Grakowski's shoes last year.
McCown was the No. 2 quarterback on this team a year ago last month. No one, outside of Chris Simms, knew the offense as well as he did. He knew it. Simms knew it. Jon Gruden knew it. With Brian Griese gone, McCown gave the coaching staff at least a little confidence that there was someone behind Simms capable of taking the baton, in case he got hurt.
Then came that rollout drill in mini-camp. It was a benign drill. Just snap the ball, roll out and make a pass. But McCown planted wrong. His knee gave way. The ligaments buckled for a moment, and then snapped. McCown heard it, he said. He knew what had happened.
His season was done. So was his chance to re-prove himself a worthy NFL quarterback. With McCown gone, Gradkowski won the backup job and, well, you know the rest. Simms got hurt. Gradkowski started. The season went to places no NFL team wants to go.
I spoke to McCown several times last year, mainly because there was a chance he could have been cut when he was eligible to come off the physically unable to perform list. I've got a soft spot for the guy, really. He's the one NFL player I can claim that I actually, sorta, kinda know. I mean, I usually have to tell him I used to work in Tyler, Texas, before it registers with him who I am, but hey, my memory's not the best, either.
I covered McCown in high school in Jacksonville, Texas. Back then, he was the youngest of the McCown quarterbacking brothers — Randy, the oldest, went to Texas A&M; Josh, the middle one, went to SMU and then later Sam Houston State. He's in Oakland now, keeping the seat warm for JaMarcus Russell (and maybe Daunte Culpepper).
Luke came last, and many scouts said he had the best chance for a pro career. He was tall — 6-foot-3. He was athletic. He can get out of the pocket and avoid the rush. And he had that big arm, the one that can hit a receiver 65 yards downfield.
Now he throws to guys like Boston and Joey Galloway, and McCown's ability to hit them accurately downfield strikes a chord with Gruden, who admittedly has always like the guy.
"You see a six-three-and-a-half guy that can run and throw, and he is tough and he is a football player," Gruden said. "He's becoming a great story."
Luke went to Louisiana Tech and broke all sorts of records, some of them held by a former teammate, Tim Rattay, now in Tennessee. He landed in a horrible situation in Cleveland as a rookie in 2004, and Tampa Bay rescued him by trading for him, to be perfectly honest.
And it all seemed to be coming together until he hurt his knee last year. He told me that he had never had an injury in his life. But he never once told me he had any regrets, and certainly he knew the opportunity he missed out on by getting hurt. One thing I've always known about Luke — about his entire family for that matter — is that they're straight shooters, God-fearing folks who put their faith in something higher than themselves. McCown leaned on that faith during a feverish rehabilitation process that got him ready far sooner last year than he realistically should have been, and probably saved him from being cut.
"I was unbelievable blessed," he said. "You wouldn't believe how blessed I was last year, coming through the injury and healing as quick as the Lord healed me so I could get back on the field."
Without much to do, McCown said he dove into Gruden's complicated playbook (Galloway says is the most complicated offense he's ever seen). He spent time sharpening his mind and waiting for another opportunity.
Meanwhile, Gradkowski became a star, and then flamed out. Simms was re-signed for what he thought was starter money, and then Jeff Garcia — McCown's old teammate in Cleveland — came to town with his own two-year contract and, eventually, the starting job. McCown just kept studying. Gruden kept noticing.
"Luke's a little different, a quiet, reserved kind of guy," Gruden said. "A great guy, smart guy. He's listening, listening, listening, taking the mental reps and I think his personality on the field is going to surface the more he plays. Lets give the guy a chance; none of us have seen him (on the field) for over a year."
As his knee took away his opportunity, something else beyond his control may have given him another chance — Jake Plummer. When the veteran decided to retire instead of reporting to Tampa Bay after his trade, it ensured that the Bucs would only take four quarterbacks to training camp. Imagine if Plummer had changed his mind. McCown might be gone, because most teams only take four quarterbacks to camp.
And that would be a shame because the guy has the chance to be something in this league. He has all the physical tools. Plus, he's grown mentally. His increased grasp of Gruden's playbook is evident in how he handles audibles in drills and how he commands respect in the huddle. He's growing, each day, into a quarterback that should be respected and, one day, should start somewhere in this league. Today he got about 40 percent of the reps.
But he has one year left to prove it to Tampa Bay. His contract expires after this season. He knows the drill — four guys for three spots.
Just don't think about it, he said. Just have faith, he said, and don't sweat the rest.
"Right now I'm getting an opportunity, so you can't complain about anything — Lord knows I wouldn't anyway," McCown said. "So you put your best foot forward and everything takes care of itself."
Matthew Postins covers the Buccaneers for BucsBlitz.com and the Charlotte Sun-Herald in Port Charlotte, Fla. He is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association. Included among his more than two dozen writing and editing awards are national awards from the PFWA, the National Newspaper Association and the Associated Press Sports Editors, and state awards from the Florida Press Club and the Florida Sports Writers Association, for his coverage of the Buccaneers since 2004.