TAMPA — The early season benching still doesn't sit well with Jeff Garcia, the wiry and fiery quarterback of the Bucs. But since getting off the pine, Garcia has been solid as oak, going 5-1 in the past six games.
During that stretch, he led the NFL in completion percentage (71.6) — better than the Jets' Brett Favre (70.9) and the Cardinals' Kurt Warner (70.0). Those other graybeard quarterbacks — Favre, 39, Warner, 37, along with Kerry Collins, 35, of the 11-1 Titans — have garnered lots of respect for the success of their teams.
The 38-year-old Garcia is used to being overlooked.
"As far as I'm concerned, it just is nothing new as far as not being included in the pack," Garcia said. "It's kind of the odd-man out syndrome. … I don't really get caught up in worrying about it. I just try to focus on what I can do each week to give the best possible chance to my team to win a football game."
Garcia, who is in the final year of his contract, hasn't fared much better with the Bucs front office. There have not been any substantial talks about a contract extension since last offseason.
"Getting benched after that (first) game, or not getting a chance to step out on that field the next weekend and prove myself over again, that more so than anything, stuck with me," he said.
With games against the Saints today, at Carolina on Dec. 8 and at Atlanta on Dec. 14, Garcia has a chance to do something Michael Vick, Jake Delhomme, Drew Brees, Brad Johnson and Chris Simms never did — win back-to-back NFC South titles.
And since his return, Garcia has a passer rating of 100.5. Entering Week 13, only two quarterbacks had a higher rating — Warner and the Chargers' Philip Rivers.
"I think more so than anything, I don't try to focus on being an elite quarterback among all of the big names," Garcia said. "But each Sunday, I try to be the best quarterback on the field between the two teams, and that's not always an easy thing to do."
That's especially true today. Brees enters as the league's hottest quarterback, having started the week leading the NFL with 3,574 yards and is coming off a four-touchdown performance against the Packers on Monday.
"Obviously, Drew is having a record-setting year," Garcia said. "He's playing outstanding football. His offense is playing great. His coach does a great job of calling the game, and they execute it well. … I can't be too concerned about what he's doing on the field."
Garcia has been blamed for some of the Bucs' red zone problems. But he understands how to win games in Tampa Bay — protect the football and rely on the defense.
Fumbles by Ike Hilliard, Clifton Smith and Earnest Graham killed three red zone trips. Twice the Bucs have failed to convert on third and 1. In overtime at Kansas City, the Bucs were clearly playing for a field goal.
"If I focus on what I need to do to help this team win football games, that's the only statistic that really matters to me," Garcia said.
Garcia doesn't dispute the calf injury that forced him to miss most of training camp and the preseason affected his performance at New Orleans. He put his team in position to win the game.
"The difference is, you're looking now at a player who's gotten a lot of reps," Saints coach Sean Payton said of Garcia. "It doesn't matter who you are, at that position, you've got to have that playing time and experience.
"He's certainly playing with confidence, and he's always been a guy who's been capable of bringing his team back. He's done that at Kansas City, Detroit. He's a guy who's going to get it done for you."
Even if Garcia is forced to find a new home after this season, he sees no reason why he can't take a little piece of history with him by helping the Bucs successfully defend the NFC South title.
"Nobody else has done that since the realignment of the league, and it's extremely important for us to find a way to finish No. 1 in this division and get that playoff berth and possibly that playoff bye," Garcia said.
"But first things first. We can't look too far ahead other than what we have in front of us right now. But this next stretch of three games is a great opportunity for this team to step up and meet the challenge head-on and hopefully do enough things that can create a good ending for the season."