To Tampa Bay head coach Jon Gruden, Jeff Garcia is a piece of barbed wire.
At 6-foot-1 and 205 pounds, the quarterback doesn't have the most menacing presence. He's not the fastest, nor has the biggest arm. But, Gruden says, "he can cut you up with his legs, his arms or his head and he is going to compete his butt off."
Garcia, in his ninth NFL season, is finally getting his chance to play for Gruden.
After five seasons with the San Francisco 49ers, including 2000 when he went 355-of-561 passing for 4,278 yards and 31 touchdowns, Garcia's career appeared to freefall. First, he found himself in a mismatched offense in Cleveland, where injuries caused him to miss five games and throw for just 1,731 yards, his worst career total until the following season in Detroit.
There, the injuries got worse, as he missed 10 games and posted less than 1,000 passing yards with three touchdowns.
Garcia landed in Philadelphia last season as Donovan McNabb's backup and reclaimed his previous success, going 116-of-188 passing for more than 1,300 yards and 10 touchdowns in six starts. He led the Eagles to the NFC East title and a playoff victory over the New York Giants. But in the offseason the Eagles chose not to re-sign him, and after a brief flirtation with Oakland, he signed with Tampa Bay.
Now, the 37-year-old is ready to continue that streak in Tampa.
Spending the offseason in Tampa, working with Gruden and participating in the mini-camps all helped with Garcia's "growing pains" and his transition to fourth team in as many years.
Of course, in this case, not everything is new. Garcia and Gruden have known each other since Garcia's playing days in San Francisco. When Garcia took his crack at the NFL after several successful seasons in the CFL, his first workout in 1999 came across the bay in Oakland — for Gruden.
While the Raiders didn't sign Garcia, Gruden developed an affinity for the Gilroy, Calif., native, leading to late dinners after preseason games talking about football, among other things.
Because of that, Garcia said, he already knows what Gruden expects.
"I've always appreciated his approach for the game. I just want to be able to meet him half way as far as what he expects out of me and what I expect out of myself," he said. "I see what he expects out of himself and the time and effort he puts into things, and I expect myself to do the same thing."
|Buccaneers quarterback Jeff Garcia seems to have the starting job in hand. (AP)|
Garcia takes it as a compliment.
"I want to step into the huddle and command the huddle," he said. "I want to have a presence in that huddle. I want them to know that what's coming out of my mouth is said with confidence, that I know what I'm doing."
His goal, Garcia said, is to perform well, make no mistakes, and bring energy to the field. And, he said, he wants his teammates to know that he's going to lead them successfully.
"That's what I really want to take from Coach Gruden — give me the play, and transfer that out to my teammates," he said. "I want them to see that intensity and emotion. And it's not about getting on my teammates or anything like that. It's more about having a presence of what I expect out of myself."
Gruden has taken note of that presence.
"I haven't been around too many people like him in the huddle," he said. "He has a great leadership about him. He has tremendous drive to be great."
Garcia's comfort level with the offense — one of the NFL's most complicated — is coming together, Garcia said. There's a learning curve, certainly, but Garcia's transition is eased by his deep knowledge of the West Coast offense, in which he's spent eight of his nine seasons.
"But they're all plays that we've already been working on throughout OTAs, so there's familiarity there," Garcia said. "And for me, that's a good thing, because it allows me to step on the field and just react, and not think about what you're doing."
Thinking about a play takes away from a quarterback's timing, Garcia said.
"It takes away from your decision making. It's so important for a quarterback to step out on the field and be aware of what he's doing so he can just react."
He sees his function as understanding an offense and keeping its rhythm smooth. The Bucs' offense demands precision, Garcia said, and knowing when to and how to get out of a bad situation.
"I am capable of making plays when plays break down around me, which I feel is an attribute that I can lend to this team," he said.
Garcia's teammates are also expecting big things from the quarterback.
"Jeff's going to be a playmaker," said fullback Mike Alstott. "He has that ability to keep the ball alive. If it's a passing situation and the pocket collapses, if you're downfield in a route or in the flat you better stay alive because he's going to keep the play alive."
Wide receiver Joey Galloway, likely to be one of Garcia's constant targets, said he can tell Garcia is a focused competitor.
"When you look at a quarterback, that's the kind of guy you want, a guy that will get in there and be a leader, compete and go after it every play," Galloway said.
That intensity is nothing new. By Garcia's own admission, he's two different people when football enters the equation.
Off the field, he's actually a relaxed and laid-back kind of guy. He's looking forward to being a family man one day, after marrying the former Carmella Decesare, the 2004 Playboy Playmate of the Year.
That changes when he trots onto the field.
During Luke McCown's rookie year in Cleveland in 2004, he played with Garcia. One of the first things he noticed was Garcia's intensity.
"During practice, all he thinks about is football," McCown said. "He doesn't come out from a rep and come over to you and say, ‘Hey, what did you do last night?' It's ‘Hey, what did you think about that play? Or what about his protection?' That's huge for young guys. That's how a professional does it."
As for Garcia, he feels his past play speaks for itself.
"I'm very serious out on the field," Garcia said. "Of course there are times when you have to lighten it up, smile, and laugh a little bit. But I'm always about bettering myself. I feel like I haven't scratched the surface as to being the quarterback I'm capable of being."