MIAMI — For 20 minutes, he was a football player again.
Not a rehab case. Not a disgruntled employee. Not a trading chip.
Chris Simms had an entire field in front of him and was anxious to put the past behind.
It didn't really matter that his huddle was populated with a few guys you barely remember and a few more you will never get to know. It didn't matter that the stadium was half-empty or the score was meaningless.
When you spend 22 months wondering if there is anything remaining in the life you once had, you're not likely to sweat those kind of details.
"There's always those doubts," Simms said. "It's been so long since I've been out there, am I going to see everything clearly? Or is it all going to be a mishmash? I was confident I could do it because I put a couple of good weeks of practice behind me but, yeah, there were some doubts."
In the end, this was a night to start over. To put the life-threatening spleen injury behind him. To forget his spot on the depth chart, and his place in the trade rumors.
It was even a night to overlook his disagreements with Jon Gruden.
"He gave me a little hug, and said he was proud of me," Simms said. "That was real nice of him."
And did you hug back?
"Yeah, kinda," Simms grinned. "A little hug."
As auditions go, this was a keeper. Simms was effective by most standards, and pretty darned impressive when you consider it was his first extensive playing time in nearly two years.
He completed 8 of 10 passes for 60 yards and a 91.7 QB rating on his three possessions, and he drove the Bucs to one touchdown and one missed field goal.
Perhaps he held onto the ball a little too long on a couple of plays when he was sacked. And you might point out a couple of downfield passes were not even close to their targets.
Still, such complaints feel like nitpicking on a night such as this.
"He has a long way to go to get it all back," Gruden said. "But a lot of it came back tonight."
For Simms, the results are probably incidental. If he continues to play well, maybe another team is willing to give up a fifth-round draft pick in a trade. (Among the teams with scouts in the press box Saturday night were the Bears and Cowboys, both of whom seem to have interest in Simms.)
And if he has a rough outing or two later in the month, the Bucs will likely release him and Simms gets his wish to be a free agent.
Either way, his time in Tampa Bay appears to be growing short. The present belongs to others. The future does, too. Simms is here today, but he already belongs to Tampa Bay's past.
What he showed Saturday night is that he can still be a viable NFL prospect elsewhere.
If there was one sequence that should have convinced you, it was on his final possession. Simms was blindsided by 305-pound defensive end Randy Starks for a sack on second down. The next play, Simms stood calmly in the pocket and hit Micheal Spurlock on third and 13 for a 15-yard gain.
"I really wasn't too concerned with getting hit," Simms said. "I knew my body was ready to get hit again."
When the Bucs scored a touchdown later in that drive, it was impossible not to feel happy as he pumped his fist in celebration.
Before Simms, 27, could reach the sideline after Michael Bennett's 1-yard touchdown run, Luke McCown was on the field to congratulate him. Followed by Brian Griese. Followed by Josh Johnson.
They are the quarterbacks likely to stay. The ones who will follow Jeff Garcia in some order on the depth chart. But it doesn't mean they weren't touched by what they had just seen.
"It was great to see him out there," McCown said. "Chris and I have been together for four years and we have a great relationship, and I know Brian and Chris are close, too. We're all rooting for each other. We want to see Chris go back to being the quarterback he was, and he took a big step forward tonight."
It has been five years since Simms was a hotshot coming out of the University of Texas, and three years since he was winning games as Tampa Bay's starting quarterback.
He's playing with the scrubs now and was relegated to the second half of the preseason opener against the Dolphins. He has no idea where, or if, he will be playing a month from now, and he has still got a ways to go before working the rust completely off his game.
Yet, for a short time Saturday night, none of that mattered.
"Trust me, compared to last year this is like night and day," Simms said. "At this time last year, I was wondering if I was ever going to be right again, and whether I'd ever be able to make the throws I needed to make. It was a helpless feeling. It's way better now."
For, no matter what else is going on, Chris Simms is a player again.
John Romano can be reached at [email protected]