TAMPA, Fla. -- He's supposed to be a quarterback's best friend.
He speaks their language. He understands the way they think. He makes it his mission to do all he can to bring out the best in their skills.
Quarterback friendly. That's the label that Jon Gruden has proudly worn throughout his NFL coaching career.
"I almost live with them," he said. "I live my life through them."
But then, as the Buccaneers' wrapped up their first practice of minicamp Tuesday, a smiling Jeff Garcia offered this observation: "I guess it depends on the quarterback, as far as the 'quarterback friendly' part."
Garcia, the Buccaneers' Pro Bowl quarterback, couldn't resist the opportunity to reference a recent controversy that shed a different light on Gruden's relationship with his signal-callers. Chris Simms, the Bucs' third-round draft pick in 2003, has publicly demanded to be released or traded. In the process, he ripped Gruden, personally and professionally, for the coach's handling of Simms' recovery from surgery to remove his spleen two years ago.
Plethora of passers
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"Totally broken" was the way Simms characterized his relationship with Gruden.
So it came as little surprise that Simms wasn't on hand for the Bucs' minicamp.
Even in his absence, Simms' criticism continued to resonate because it wasn't typical of him to sound off like that and because of Gruden's reputation for usually doing right by his quarterbacks. Granted, Simms' future with the Buccaneers, who have four other quarterbacks, isn't bright and he figured to be the odd man out at the position even if he didn't blast Gruden. Now, it seems only a matter of time before Simms is gone, which is part of the reason Buccaneers general manager Bruce Allen and others within the Bucs organization suspect the anti-Gruden rant was a stunt orchestrated by Simms' agent.
"In the good times and bad times, we try to hang in there together," Gruden said, trying to be as diplomatic as possible. "Sometimes contracts, depth charts, forces outside enter into the picture; the agent also enters into the picture. You can't please everybody all the time.
"I don't agree with everything (Simms) said. ... I hope his situation works itself out, but you're going to have to make some tough decisions if you're going to be a coach. ... I owe it to our football team and our fans to play the best quarterback. And, fortunately, we've got a Pro Bowl guy here in Jeff Garcia and a couple of other guys that won a lot of games for us."
Garcia joined the Buccaneers, his fifth NFL team, last year and promptly became their offensive catalyst. He finished the season with 209 completions on 327 attempts for 2,440 yards, 13 touchdowns and four interceptions for a 94.6 rating, third-best in the NFC. He set teams records for lowest interception percentage and with 197 consecutive attempts without being picked off.
After leading the Buccaneers to an NFC South championship and appearing in the Pro Bowl, Garcia has sounded off about wanting a raise from his current base salary of $2 million. He was known to be upset about losing more than $1 million in playing-time incentives because he was held out of the final six quarters of last season after the Bucs had secured a playoff spot and home-field advantage for their first playoff game.
However, unlike some veterans seeking more money, Garcia hasn't protested by withholding his services from offseason workouts. He also doesn't intend to do any more public complaining about his contract, hoping that Allen will address it at some point before the start of the season.
And Garcia has no problems getting along with Gruden.
"We've got a good relationship," the coach said. "He brings a lot to the table. Forget about his ability. His leadership, his competitive spirit, and his business-like approach is rare. That's something we're going to lean on again this season."
"It's really been a positive working with him because of how he challenges me as a player," Garcia said of Gruden. "A great deal of his offense, obviously, goes through the quarterback and the mental side of the game is what he is a stickler on. Last year was a complete growth experience for me. I feel like, going into the second year, it is more natural to me. (The play-calling) does come out of my mouth easier, I understand what we're trying to do. I feel like my decision-making can be even better, so in those ways I think it's been a real positive unity being able to come here, play for the Bucs and play for coach Gruden."
The Bucs took another key step to help get greater production from Garcia by hiring Greg Olson as their quarterbacks coach. Olson worked with Garcia at two of his four previous NFL stops, San Francisco and Detroit. He is, Garcia said, a strong technical coach who excels at pushing "those buttons" that get the most out of Garcia.
As aware as Garcia and the other quarterbacks are of Simms' negative feelings toward the coach, they have no intention of letting it become a distraction.
"We can't allow it to affect us," Garcia said. "One of the things you have to learn, playing at this level, you can't get caught up in the emotions of the roller-coaster ride, which it can be. And if you allow it to be that way, you're not going to be as effective as you need to be on the field. Chris said what he had to say, and that's how he feels. It's unfortunate with how things went for him here, and I think a fresh start for him at some point will be a good thing.
"But as far as I'm concerned, I'm here, I'm entrenched. I want to do whatever I can to help this team win a championship, and that's what it's all about."