DENVER — For the last month, Jeff Garcia believed the next snap he took at quarterback would probably come in another uniform.
"I think what entered my mind is that it might have been my last snap here in Tampa, as far as whether I would finish the season off here or somewhere else," Garcia said. "Those were the thoughts going through my mind."
But late in the third quarter of Sunday's 16-13 loss to the Broncos, starter Brian Griese took a hard hit from blitzing cornerback Champ Bailey, badly bruising Griese's throwing elbow and spraining his shoulder.
Garcia had been the inactive third quarterback since being benched after the season-opening loss to the Saints on Sept. 7. But for some reason, coach Jon Gruden had elevated him to No. 2 on Sunday.
After Garcia struggled mightily and failed to move the chains on his first three possessions, Gruden approached him on the sideline. Gruden's purpose was not to give his 38-year-old quarterback a play or some pointers. Instead, he passed an olive branch.
The missed play-time bonus, the flirtation with Brett Favre, the benching — Garcia was told to forgive and forget all of it.
"Jon called me over and he just said, 'You need to get back to being you,' " Garcia said. " 'Not worry about what has happened, not worrying about trying to score two touchdowns in one series, that's not going to happen. Let's just take one play at a time and be yourself. Scramble. Make things happen. Be the guy you've been in the past.' ''
Garcia responded with a 90-yard drive, completing nine passes, including a 7-yarder to Ike Hilliard for the Bucs' only touchdown. It was too little, too late. But with Griese's status unknown for next week against Carolina, Garcia says he's ready to lead the offense again.
"Coming in, it's what I play this game for, it's what I prepare for," Garcia said. "To say I'm excited about the opportunity is not really appropriate. But I want to be out there helping my teammates. I want to compete. I want to give back. Depending on what the situation is, I'll do everything I can do to make sure I'm prepared and ready to play next week."
Griese, who was sacked three times and completed 13 of 19 passes for 88 yards, said preliminary tests on the elbow and shoulder revealed no structural damage.
"It's going to be all right," Griese said. "I took a helmet to the elbow and there's not a lot of room for swelling so the swelling made it tough for me to grip the ball. The doctor says it's okay, and I'm glad it's just a bruise and nothing structural. I'm just going to get as much treatment as I can."
The treatment both Griese and Garcia received from the Broncos defense was surprising. Denver entered with one of the NFL's worst defenses, yielding nearly 30 points and 400 yards per game.
But the Broncos surprised the Bucs by playing zone coverage when Gruden had spent all week preparing for man-to-man. And after not allowing Griese to be sacked in 97 straight pass attempts heading into the game, the offensive line went from stoppers to sieves. Right tackle Jeremy Trueblood had three penalties and allowed a sack.
"I don't care too much about quarterbacks, really," Broncos defensive lineman Elvis Dumervil said. "I wish (Griese) would've stayed in the game, though. Garcia runs around too much."
The Bucs missed some big scoring chances. Griese overthrew a wide open Jerramy Stevens in the end zone, and Gruden opted not to take a shot at the end from the Broncos 17-yard line with 18 seconds left in the half, handing off to Warrick Dunn instead to set up Matt Bryant's tying field goal.
Now Gruden has a bigger decision than any one he made Sunday: Griese or Garcia? He was noncommittal.
"We'll get all the information and go from there," Gruden said.
Why was Garcia the inactive third quarterback the past three games?
"I don't really have time to get into it all right now," Gruden said. "Jeff's getting healthy again, we like the way he's throwing the football. Talk to anybody you want, he's had some injuries, he's been inactive, he missed the entire training camp, he's had a calf, he's had a pinkie, he's had an ankle, he's been sore. I had to see with my own eyes. You don't get a chance to come to practice. I want to see him throw the ball on time. Crisp. I want to see his movement again. I'm seeing more and more of that.
"When Jeff does get healthy and he gets all the traits that Jeff Garcia has back, he's going to be fine."
Garcia believes he proved that Sunday, to his coach and to his teammates. And maybe he has a future with the Bucs after all.
"I haven't necessarily been in the competitive environment for four weeks now," Garcia said. "But I thought with that last drive, it felt good to kind of have that old me back in the sense of the movement, finding receivers, receivers making plays and just stringing together a drive in a difficult environment."