Buccaneer QB: Dangerous Rookie?

IRVING, TX. - Bruce Gradkowski wasn't supposed to be the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' starting quarterback this season. When the 2006 season started, Chris Simms was entrenched as the team's starter and quarterback of the future, while third-year man passer Luke McCown was the backup.

But when Simms went down with a ruptured spleen, Gradkowski was inserted into the starting lineup, and has been forced to learn on the fly. An undrafted free agent from the University of Toledo who signed with the Bucs in July, Gradkowski has played in nine games for Tampa Bay this season, completing 129 of 239 passes (53.9 percent) for 1,208 yards, four interceptions and nine touchdowns.

Dallas defensive end Marcus Spears said there are two main issues the Cowboys must address in preparation for the Buccaneers and their rookie quarterback: lack of familiarity and available game tape, and his overall athleticism.

"He's a really good athlete," Spears said. "A lot of young guys, you can load up on them and bring the rush, but this guy can really run, he can escape. We have to be aware of that all the time."

Linebacker Kevin Burnett said that just because Gradkowski is young and relatively inexperienced doesn't mean the Cowboys will re-vamp their defensive schemes and alignments to throw a new set of looks and formations at him.

"No, with a guy like him, you have to play your game," Burnett said. "You make him adjust to you, you don't adjust to him."

But Burnett also echoed Spears' assessment that a rookie quarterback sometimes is harder to prepare for, but added that while the defense will not alter its strategy, Gradkowski still has more work to do to prepare to face the Dallas defense than the Cowboys do to face him.

"Sometimes those guys (rookie quarterbacks) are a dangerous group," Burnett said, "because you never know everything they can do. But it's more on them. They're learning so much every week, and even though we might do some things similar to the team they faced last week, this is still his first time around, seeing our defense."

Some observers have drawn comparisons this week between Gradkowski and the relatively inexperienced counterpart he will face with the Cowboys. Spears said that to compare Gradkowski with Dallas quarterback Tony Romo on the basis of the number of games each has played is both unfair and inaccurate.

"There's no comparison," Spears said. "This guy (Gradkowski) is a rookie, he wasn't even supposed to play this year. I know he's played more games than Tony, but he's a rookie, and there's just too much information to learn too fast. Tony hasn't played a lot, but he's been here three years. You learn a lot, in practice and standing on the sideline, watching. Tony has waited his turn, and it's shown in the way he plays. Their guy is a great athlete, too, but I'll take Tony any day."

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