Not long ago, quarterback Jeff Garcia confronted coach Jon Gruden, seeking clarification on why the Bucs thought they needed to pursue former Packers quarterback Brett Favre. After all, Garcia figured, he had led Tampa Bay to an NFC South title in his first year with the team. He was named to the Pro Bowl. And he likely saved a few jobs — including Gruden's. Gruden, perhaps feeling like a cat caught with a mouthful of feathers, redirected his emotional signal caller to general manager Bruce Allen. At that point, Garcia decided to let the matter drop. Well, sort of. "He's got a real edge about him that I like, personally," Gruden said. "He's on my (butt) all the time." Garcia, 38, understands the business of football. He began as a professional in the Canadian Football League then followed with five NFL teams in the past six years. But the Favre episode this offseason has strained his relationship with the Bucs, and particularly with Gruden. "It wears on you," Garcia said. "I think that's really what breaks down professional athletes oftentimes. It's not so much the physical strain on the body, it's the mental wear and tear that they go through. I've felt that. I feel like because I've been through it before, I know how to get through it and I know how to get over it. But it does get real old."
Today, in the opener at New Orleans, the quarterback who has always felt unappreciated begins another season with the coach who is never satisfied.
Their heads will bump, eyes will roll and personalities will clash. But the reason they have differences might be because they are so much alike.
Although Gruden did not get the quarterback he wanted — Favre was traded to the Jets — he's stuck with the one he probably needed. And deep down, Garcia knows that nobody can push him to become a better player than the guy who is always looking for somebody else.
"I feel like, throughout my career, I built up a lot of positives, and it wasn't like it was five or six years ago," Garcia said. "I mean, things are still happening within the last two years of playing good, quality football and helping two teams win division titles and being a Pro Bowl player. And yet, it never seems to be enough."
• • •
Gruden clashing with his quarterback hardly rates as news anymore. The Bucs have had nine starters in six years. While he bemoans the lack of continuity, Gruden recognizes he has contributed to it.
There's no question that with quarterbacks, Gruden doesn't buy green bananas.
"I do think it takes a veteran to play well in that system," said Cowboys quarterback Brad Johnson, who won a Super Bowl with the Bucs in 2002, his first year under Gruden.
Need proof? Bruce Gradkowski started 11 games as a rookie in 2006, and the Bucs finished 4-12.
Garcia, who played in the Bill Walsh-style West Coast offense with the 49ers, Lions and Eagles, has been outspoken about his dislike of the complexity of Gruden's offense — the complicated shifts, personnel groupings and voluminous playbook.
"Coach has pretty much established his system," Garcia said. "He likes what he does, so it's important for the rest of us to follow along and learn and try to adapt to it as best as possible, as much as there are times when I'll try to give some input. Then it's up to him as to whether he wants to take it or not."
"We've tapered it back in some ways," Gruden said, "and we're going to do what he (Garcia) likes to do at the end of the day. I wear you out with, 'Do you like this? Do you understand this?' And if I don't get good feedback, it's gone."
Gruden gives his quarterbacks a lot of options for play-calling at the line of scrimmage, but he doesn't want them to forget who's running the offense.
"(Rich) Gannon and I came to blows the last year (in Oakland) because he knew more than me," Gruden said. "I didn't know what the hell we were doing? I would tell him, 'Can I call one play? Please, I want to run the ball here. Will you run it?' We're not right there (with Garcia) right now. Sometimes he'd audible and I'd be screaming, 'No, no, no, no!' He'd yell, 'Hey, shut up!'
"That's the way we want to play at times. When you have confidence in somebody, the best way to show your confidence is to give him a lot of stuff and let him play."
• • •
Gruden likens Garcia to barbed wire because of his sharp edges. But Gruden is a walking can of Red Bull, rising before 4 a.m. and at full throttle by the time players step into the meeting room.
"I'm trying to sell," Gruden said. "I'm a salesman.
"My mom was a teacher. Knowledge is power. When you come from that Bill Walsh school, knowledge is power. And the accumulation of that knowledge is a powerful thing. Tom Brady is not just doing it by himself because he has a great arm. (Peyton) Manning is doing it because he has incredible vision and system intelligence. He can say, 'This play right here will gut this defense. And that's what we're going to run right now.' "
"They have all this going for them, along with the ability. That's a great way to wake up in your bed on Sunday morning on the road and you know the game plan is going to work."
Tactically, Gruden builds his game plans around the strengths of his quarterback. But more often then not, it's the quarterback who has to adjust to Gruden. That includes the sideline berating on game day.
"At the end of the day, there have been a lot of things said, and I've been in the middle of that, too, where it's a situation where I get hurt," said Brian Griese, who played for Gruden in 2004-05 and is now a backup after being reacquired in the offseason. "There's all that kind of off-the-field stuff.
"I try to do as much as I can with what I'm given and show that I take that seriously and the responsibility of getting into the right play and out of the wrong play. As you do that, more and more is given to you. I've worked well with Jon in the past. I think he respects me as a player and as somebody who understands the game."
By now, you're familiar with Garcia's journey. Not blessed with size (6-1, 205) or arm strength, he was overlooked in high school and junior college, signing with San Jose State. His pro career began in the CFL until Walsh brought him to the 49ers.
But after five productive seasons in San Francisco, he bounced from Cleveland to Detroit to Philadelphia before landing with the Bucs last season. He threw 13 touchdowns and four interceptions in '07, but durability is a concern after he missed all or parts of four games. He was looking forward to improving in his second year under Gruden until the Favre flirtation and a calf injury sidetracked him.
"It was like tunnel vision last year because I couldn't open up to everything around me because I felt so fixed on my job and what I had to do," Garcia said. "Now, because it's more natural, I feel I can be better at my job. I can be less thinking on the field and more reacting, which is important in this game."
Gruden actually enjoys the energy and vibe Garcia brings to the meeting room.
"He's demanding," Gruden said. "He wants to know how we're handling each situation. He's not here to just relax. He'll say, 'I like that better than that. Call every one of these (plays).' He deserves that. He's played a long time. He's had great peaks, and he's had some valleys. There are reasons for the valleys and reasons for the peaks. He wants to peak."
Gruden needs Garcia as much as Garcia needs Gruden. The Bucs averaged more points (18.9-18.7) and scored more touchdowns (180-177) in six years under Tony Dungy than for the same period under Gruden.
But at 1 p.m. EDT today, Garcia won't be thinking about Favre, his relationship with Gruden or anything else. He'll just be given the plays and try to make them work.
"People keep writing about it, that his feelings are hurt because maybe we look into another guy's situation," Gruden said. "It doesn't mean his feelings are hurt or that we should comment on it anymore. He's played long enough. He's been in this business a long time. He can answer that question better than me."
It starts today.
Sunday, September 7, 2008, Section Y