TAMPA — There was something in the way he moved. You could have sworn you had seen his like before.
He skittered across the pocket like a man trying to keep his balance on a tightrope, barely maintaining control. At the last minute, he rambled forward, sticking his head in the general direction of the goal line, daring the opposition to take its best shot.
You remember Jeff Garcia, don't you?
And don't you wonder where the Bucs have been keeping this guy?
Garcia is back, and didn't you miss him? The scrappy, scrambling quarterback who did so much for Tampa Bay's success a year ago returned to the huddle Sunday, and he looked very much like a deposed emperor returning to the throne.
Garcia was sharp, the offense was efficient and the Bucs were dominant in Sunday afternoon's 27-3 victory over the Carolina Panthers. It was the team's most complete victory of the season, and it seemed to suggest that the Bucs might be something to reckon with before this year is over.
Also, it seemed to suggest that once again the Bucs are in the hands of Jeff Garcia.
After this performance, there can be no doubt. Barring injury, barring bad play, the weekly melodrama is over. Jeff Garcia is the past and future quarterback of the Bucs. Absolutely. Unequivocally. Doubtlessly.
It was not so much Garcia's numbers. They were rather pedestrian, especially in the second half, when the Bucs decided to take the air out of the ball and treat the Panthers' defensive line like the Northwest Passage.
With Garcia, however, there was an energy to the offense that had been missing for most of the season. It was like watching a teenager plunk away on an acoustic guitar for a month until one day, he plugs into an amp and strikes a chord that shakes the house.
Consider this: In the Bucs' four previous games, they had five pass plays that went for more than 20 yards. Sunday afternoon alone, they had four.
Consider this: In the Bucs' four previous games, they had 5.45 yards per pass play. Sunday afternoon, they averaged 8.7.
Consider this: In the Bucs' four previous games, their average quarterback rating was 67.5. Sunday afternoon, Garcia's was 117.3.
Garcia did not turn over the ball. He converted six of his 13 third downs. And the offense rolled over a Panthers defense that had been ranked fourth in the NFL. Just like last year, that was Garcia sliding in the pocket, buying time, creating plays.
Yeah, that'll do.
"I think the main thing for me as a player is that I need to play with emotion," Garcia said. "I need to play with energy. I need to have a certain excitement about myself when I step out on the field. If I don't have that, I'm not who I need to be, and I'm not who I need to be for my teammates."
For Garcia, this was life on the other side of the Phantom Zone. Since being benched after the opener, Garcia has been buried on the depth chart. He was so far on the sideline, you wondered if the Bucs charged him admission. Garcia's copy of the game plan was simple: Try not to stand in front of the Gatorade.
Yes, Garcia was a little banged up, but even he admits that wasn't the problem. Garcia was bothered by offseason contract issues and by the team's flirtation with Brett Favre, and to Gruden, he didn't look like the same guy.
"I think there were times when I dwelled on some of the things that happened in the offseason," Garcia said. "You throw in a couple of little nagging injuries that didn't allow me to be at my top performance level. … It doesn't allow me to be the player I'm capable of being."
Give Garcia this much: Whether it was his head or his health, he didn't let the situation fester. He bit his lip, and he stayed after practice to get his reps, and he waited for another turn.
"I wasn't going to be 'that guy,' " Garcia said. "At this point, at this age, I should know how to handle things, and I wanted to handle them in the right way."
You know, the way he handled the Panthers.
Oh, it's possible to make an argument for Brian Griese if you wish. After all, Griese was 3-1 in the games he started, and some coaches don't like to replace injured players. On the other hand, Garcia's game against the Panthers was the finest quarterback performance of the season for Tampa Bay.
Here's the bigger question, however: As the Bucs move forward, which quarterback is more likely to help them beat the Seahawks Sunday night? The Saints at home? The Panthers on the road? The Cowboys? The Vikings? The Chargers?
Today, it looks like Garcia.
Tomorrow? If Garcia has learned anything, it is that no one is promised tomorrow.