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Breathe easy over the backup QBs

TAMPA — No wonder the Buccaneers didn't go hard after Brett Favre. The poor old guy would have been heartbroken when he didn't make this team.

Seriously, when was the last time picking a backup was a multiple-choice test in Tampa Bay? When was the last time you had confidence that a quarterback's twisted ankle wasn't the end of a season?

Two games into August and the best battle on the depth chart may be at No. 2 quarterback.

So do you like the older guy who moves the team with a calm efficiency, or the younger one who has a hankering to whip it downfield? Do you like Brian Griese, 33, completing 79.1 percent of his passes, or do you prefer Luke McCown, 27, with close to 10 yards per completion?

Trust me, these are not idle preseason questions. This is not a minor technicality on the depth chart. If you don't think either Griese or McCown will start a game in 2008, you have more faith than memory.

And that's not just because Jeff Garcia is 38 and plays the game as if he were a stunt double in a Kung Fu movie. And it's not just because Garcia finished 2007 banged up, and has started '08 the same way. Starting quarterbacks get knocked around in this league, and nobody knows that better than the Bucs.

In the last four seasons, a backup quarterback has started nearly 60 percent of Tampa Bay's games. And recent results have not been terribly pretty.

Tampa Bay's starting quarterbacks went 8-8 in 2006-07, while the backups were 5-11. Now a lot of that can be blamed on starting Bruce Gradkowski when he was still wearing a beginner's jockstrap, but it points out just how valuable it is to have an experienced backup.

Which is why it wouldn't be a surprise to see Griese as the official understudy on Sept. 7. His arm is not as big as McCown's and his feet are not as nimble, but there is comfort in putting your trust in age.

Griese has familiarity with the offense. He has experience coming off the bench. He has a decade's worth of knowledge when it comes to knowing whether to dump a ball off, or go for broke.

"I thought Brian Griese was exceptional to start the period," coach Jon Gruden said Sunday night.

Joke all you want about Gruden's wandering eye when it comes to quarterbacks, but the truth is he's not after their bodies. This is a coach who loves QBs for their minds.

And Griese knows the way to Gruden's heart is through his playbook.

"I feel the most comfortable in this offense … than any other offense I have been in," Griese said. "I really enjoy the fact that the quarterback has a lot of responsibility for getting the team in and out of the right plays at the right time, and I take that responsibility seriously."

In the end, the backup quarterback might be dictated by the situation. If the Bucs need a quarterback to be an offensive caretaker, then Griese is the safe pick. If Gruden needs someone to jump-start the offense, then McCown has the better skill set. If the Bucs are in the playoff hunt, look for Griese. If the season is going downhill, then it's time to see what McCown is capable of doing.

"Brian Griese made some great decisions," Gruden said at halftime. "We are going to challenge him above the neck. He is a good football player, and we are going to ask him to do a lot for us."

So far, both quarterbacks have presented their cases well. Griese has been virtually flawless, taking the Bucs on a 19-play drive for a touchdown in his only possession at Miami, and beginning Sunday night's game with a 17-play drive for a touchdown against New England.

McCown has been more dynamic, but not quite as efficient. He has been far more effective throwing downfield to wideouts, but does not look as calm in the pocket. The Bucs have one touchdown, two field goals and a missed field goal in his seven possessions.

"I have to take my decision-making process to the next level," McCown said. "Knowing when to be aggressive and when to take those chances downfield. They have to be calculated risks … knowing the risk/reward factor. All of that carries weight."

Between them, Griese and McCown are 35-of-49 for two touchdowns, no interceptions and 252 yards. Keep in mind, these are preseason numbers, and it would be ridiculous to suggest either is ready to push Garcia for the starting job.

But, for the first time in a long while, it doesn't seem ridiculous to suggest the Bucs won't be in trouble if their starting quarterback goes down during the season.

Breathe easy over the backup QBs 08/17/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 19, 2008 7:21am]

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