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The Bucs’ Ryan Griffin is no longer football’s Moonlight Graham

After finally taking his first NFL snap on Sunday, Griffin was back out there Wednesday, quarterbacking the Bucs’ first-team offense, and not getting his hopes up.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Ryan Griffin (4) looks to pass against the Indianapolis Colts during the second half of an NFL football game Sunday, Dec. 8, 2019, in Tampa, Fla. [MARK LOMOGLIO | AP]

TAMPA — History will show that on the afternoon of Dec. 11, 2019, with 12:02 remaining in the third quarter against the Indianapolis Colts, Ryan Griffin took a snap and handed the football to Ronald Jones, who gained two yards.

“It was cool,’’ Griffin said. “It felt normal. It felt like it’s always felt. No big deal.’’

No big deal?

Griffin was 30 years and 21 days old, having played 6¾ years in the NFL and banked $5,311,085 without having played a single down in a game that mattered.

But Bucs starting quarterback Jameis Winston was having trouble gripping the football with what later was diagnosed as a broken thumb on his right throwing hand. Griffin was playing catch with tight end Cameron Brate, his long-time housemate, when coach Bruce Arians said what he had waited a lifetime to hear.

“You’re in.’’

You would think Griffin may have felt like he had a bowl of razor blades sitting in his stomach.

“Just the amount of work he puts in as a quarterback in preparation every single week, to never get in for 6½ years, you know being his roommate, obviously it’s frustrating for him because you practice so you can play in a game,’’ Brate said. “But unfortunately, he plays a position where one guy plays. That’s the way it is.’’

Day in and day out, year in and year out, Griffin waited his turn. Undrafted out of Tulane, he sat behind Drew Brees and Luke McCown for parts of two seasons with the Saints. He backed up Winston, Mike Glennon and Ryan Fitzpatrick in Tampa Bay, mostly as the No. 3 quarterback.

But as hard as he tried to work his asterisk off, Griffin couldn’t get on the field during the regular season.

Not for the last series after an outcome had been settled. Not to take a knee and run out the final seconds.

It almost happened three weeks ago on his 30th birthday with many of Griffin’s family and friends at Raymond James Stadium. The Bucs were losing 34-17 to the Saints. Winston was hit on the ankle one play before he threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown with 5:07 remaining. He could barely limp off the field but returned anyway.

“I was like, 'Wow, this is it! He’s finally going to get in. His family is here and he turned 30 today," Brate said. "It just came a couple weeks later.’’

Griffin looked to be in total control Sunday. After the handoff to Jones, he flipped a 5-yard pass to tight end O.J. Howard. On third-and-3 from the Bucs’ 30-yard line, Griffin backpedaled and invited the pass rush before throwing a screen pass in the right flat to Dare Ogunbowale for 13 yards and a first down.

He missed his next two pass attempts, including one to Chris Godwin that would’ve been a first down.

“I thought he was going to do something else,’’ Griffin said.

By then, Winston was able to grip the football and started throwing on the sideline.

“I think at first I was just like, man, I want to be in there,’’ Winston said. “Then I was like, oh, it’s Griff, it’s his first completion! Everybody was very excited for him. He worked so hard for that moment and it showed. Excellent third-down conversion that he had."

The whole experience for Griffin lasted 2 minutes and 29 seconds on the play clock, about the time it takes to microwave a bag of popcorn.

The final stats read 2 of 4 passing for 18 yards and a passer rating of 62.5.

Until Sunday, Griffin was sort of the NFL’s version of Moonlight Graham, the New York Giants baseball outfielder who played one inning on defense in June 1905 and was on deck in the bottom of the ninth when the game ended. He never got his at bat in the big leagues. (But at least he was portrayed by Burt Lancaster in Field of Dreams.)

Mostly, Griffin felt relief.

“I mean I would’ve like to have gone out and scored, obviously,’’ Griffin said. “But yeah, glad it’s behind me.’’

The truth is that the Bucs coaching staff and players all know Griffin is a capable NFL quarterback. He has worked on his craft and gotten better each season. But it’s that old conundrum: they won’t play him because he lacks experience but how do you get experience if they won’t play you?

“I thought he looked really good,’’ Brate said. “Super poised calling the plays. Everything at the line of scrimmage. I know it was a big day for him and I was just pumped for him he got into a game.’’

This week, there is more false hope.

Winston didn’t grip a football in practice Wednesday and Griffin got all the first-team reps.

“It was the same thing I see from him every day: He’s poised, he’s accurate,’’ Arians said. ”He knows what he’s doing with the ball. He gets it out of his hand quick.

“Like he’s never missed a beat. Like he’s been a starter all year. That’s just him. He’s a bright guy, he’s extremely accurate. It was a very fast tempo practice. We really didn’t miss anything.’’

Start the clock. How long before his first NFL start?

“We have all the confidence in the world,’’ Arians said. “Now, that’s over with. Put the picture on the wall. You’re out there. You got to play.’’

Contact Rick Stroud at rstroud@tampbay.com. Follow @NFLStroud

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Ryan Griffin's cleats during the first half of an NFL football game against the Indianapolis Colts Sunday, Dec. 8, 2019, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Mark LoMoglio) [MARK LOMOGLIO | AP]

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