Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Luke McCown knows his time is now

Luke McCown can make tonight his coming-out party. He can silence his critics, and he can convert unbelievers. Conversely, the Buccaneers quarterback can foster more doubts and raise more questions.

Other than that, McCown has nothing riding on Tampa Bay's preseason opener against the Titans in Nashville.

"This is his time, just like how it's my time. I'm the head coach," rookie coach Raheem Morris said. "It's my time. I have to be the very best.

"It's his time."

McCown, 28, who has never been offered a legitimate opportunity to start in four previous seasons in Tampa Bay, said: "I think there's a lot to prove, proving that with the work that I've put in and the time I've spent that I can put my stamp on this."

What has been a back-and-forth competition for the starting job between McCown and Byron Leftwich through the first two weeks of training camp is about to be kicked into high gear.

Leftwich, 29, gets the start next week at Jacksonville. So what McCown does tonight, when he plays alongside the other members of the starting offense, will perhaps be the strongest argument for or against him being the starter.

By the third preseason game, Aug. 27 against the Dolphins, coaches hope to be near a decision, and changing minds becomes more difficult. Leftwich, Morris said, will get the same amount of playing time tonight as McCown, roughly two to three offensive series.

But McCown's snaps will be huge.

"We've been grading them throughout training camp," quarterbacks coach Greg Olson said, "but live situations will count more, and we're going to take a real hard look at what they do with the No. 1 unit."

This could be a pivotal moment in McCown's career. But there's no lack of perspective. Though he is inexperienced, McCown is entering his sixth NFL season.

"It's the first time here he's been really told, 'You have a legitimate chance to be the starting quarterback,' " Olson said. "He's always kind of known he was going to be a backup.

"I do think he knows what's at stake, but he's an even-keeled guy, and I don't think he's overwhelmed by anything."

Though he was never given a shot at the starting job by former coach Jon Gruden, McCown says he grew as a quarterback under Morris' predecessor.

In the team's new simplified offense installed by coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski, McCown is free to use his instincts more because the quarterback has less responsibility.

"I feel like I'm a little more freed up to have more control, to not think as much when I'm going up to the line," McCown said.

"I can help a guy get lined up right and have command. I think that's from having so many demands in previous years put on me by Gruden. I think that's really prepared me for this opportunity, and I'm ready to step up and ready to demand a lot from my teammates."

Morris has a precise plan for his quarterbacks, starting with McCown and Leftwich, who will get 12 to 15 plays each, enough for the coaches to make legitimate evaluations. After that, first-round pick Josh Freeman and second-year pro Josh Johnson should play extensively.

"(You need) at least 12 to 15 plays so we can get a grade on a guy," Morris said. "Hopefully that gets you to halftime, and then you can see a little (Freeman) and a little (Johnson).

"If it happens another way and Josh Freeman has to finish the first half, then that's fine, too."

But McCown is the one who has the best chance to steal the show, something his coaches have told him. The message to McCown was simple:

"Here is your opportunity right now," Morris said. "Let's see if you can hold on to it. Let's see if you can keep it.

"Let's see if you can be the very best."

Stephen F. Holder can be reached at sholder@sptimes.com.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Luke McCown knows his time is now 08/14/09 [Last modified: Saturday, August 15, 2009 12:48am]

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