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Garcia could determine Gruden's future

TAMPA -- Jon Gruden thought he was done with the questions. The morning session of the first mandatory minicamp was in the books, and Gruden had spent about 20 minutes dazzling the media with that 50-most-beautiful-people charm, dancing around this item of Bucs business and that.

Then came Pam Iorio, the bubbly, popular mayor of Tampa, who wanted Gruden as the guest for her weekly municipal cable access TV show.

A layup, right? Nope.

"So, when are we going to get that dominant defense back?" the mayor asked. Gruden gave her that infectious sideways grin and a well-rehearsed answer.

And how would the mayor, who last month was re-elected to a second term, advise Gruden about how to keep his job in this make-or-break season?

"In football, just like politics, you've got to adjust your strategy," said Mayor Iorio. "That's what I did."

And that's what Gruden is doing -- although some would suggest this strategy seems more like quiet desperation than simple adjustment. To find some kind of consistent play out of the quarterback position, Gruden has turned to 37-year-old Jeff Garcia, who would be the league's second-oldest starter in 2007, behind only the Packers' Brett Favre, who is older by about five months.

As Garcia's backup, Gruden would like to rely on Chris Simms, but Simms still is struggling to come back from surgery to remove his spleen, which was damaged in that vicious beating he took in Week 3 last season against the Carolina Panthers. So, Gruden is determined to talk Jake Plummer out of retirement, which apparently is going quite well in the backwoods of Utah and Idaho.

To shore up an underachieving offensive line, Gruden brought in nine-year veteran Luke Petitgout, who was jettisoned by the New York Giants after he broke his leg last season. The Giants were so down on Petitgout that they handed the critical job of left tackle -- protecting Eli Manning's blindside -- to a guard, David Diehl. When the popular tight end Dave Moore retired, Gruden claimed the troubled Jerramy Stevens, who was shown the door in Seattle.

No one in Tampa believes Gruden -- or general manager Bruce Allen, for that matter -- can survive another losing season. A 4-12 finish in 2006 left Gruden with a winning percentage of .422 (27-37) in the last four seasons. So, after bringing the Lombardi Trophy to Tampa in 2002, that low hum underneath the mundane questions about Simeon Rice's readiness, the changes at linebacker and the seemingly agelessness of Garcia is the sound of rampant speculation about Gruden's future.

"You don't have to be rocket scientist to know if you don't win, you don't stick around," Gruden said. "But I'm not worried about that. I'm going to have fun coaching."

Indeed, Gruden doesn't appear to be worried. He's just moved his growing family into a $3 million home in an exclusive North Tampa subdivision on a golf course where, ironically, his predecessor Tony Dungy has a place. His agent, Bob LaMonte, knows that a guy with a championship on his résumé will land on his feet if the Glazer family -- the Bucs' owners -- decides that it doesn't want to extend Gruden beyond 2008.

In April, Gruden flew to California to attend Garcia's wedding. Now, Gruden's fortunes are hitched to Garcia.

"He knows my intensity, my emotion and how I approach the game," Garcia said. "You know, it's just bombs away right now."

Gruden's infatuation with Garcia didn't happen overnight. When he was in Oakland, Gruden flirted with putting Garcia in the silver and black. But he took a pass and told Garcia's father recently that he regretted doing so.

"I like the history that he's had," said Gruden. "You go back and watch him in Calgary [Stampeders of the CFL] or when he was with the Niners or anywhere. What he accomplished in Philadelphia, those are some great films. He makes a lot of plays with his arm. He's accurate. He's a great competitor. You don't hear him in the huddle. You don't visually witness what he brings to a team in terms of energy. He's a creative football player. There's going to be six or seven plays that are not scripted in a football game that he's going to make and for that we're excited."

To say the Bucs could use some playmaking on offense is an understatement. Gruden's offense failed to gain a first down on 45 percent of its drives in 2006, the highest rate of three-and-outs in the league, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. And forget third and long. The Bucs gained a first down on only 9 percent of their plays on third-and-10-or-more yards -- that was the lowest rate in the league and less than half the NFL average of 20 percent.

That put enormous pressure on coordinator Monte Kiffin's aging defense. The Bucs allowed 22.1 points per game in 2006, ending Kiffin's 10-season streak in which Tampa Bay allowed fewer than 20 points per game.

"We've got to have more consistent play out of the quarterback position," said veteran Pro Bowl cornerback Ronde Barber. "Garcia will give us that."

This is Garcia's fifth NFL team. He won't be the oldest starting quarterback in the Bucs' history. That title belongs to Steve DeBerg. Garcia would be the oldest starter to win a game in a Bucs uniform in a non-strike year. (John Reaves -- remember him? -- was a replacement quarterback who won a game for the Bucs in 1987. He, too, was 37.)

These age comparisons annoy Garcia to no end.

"There's always something with me," Garcia said. "Always some kind of excuse. I'm not big enough. Don't have the arm strength. Too slow. Too this, too that. Now, I'm too old."

On the field, he doesn't look too old. While Simms was plodding and deliberate -- which often resulted in the annoying habit of having his passes batted down -- Garcia bounces from play to play, barking out orders and firing the ball between improvised passing lanes.

We've got to have more consistent play out of the quarterback position. Garcia will give us that.

Ronde Barber

Last year in Philadelphia, Garcia's improvisation saved the Eagles' season. Replacing the injured Donovan McNabb, Garcia threw 10 touchdown passes and just two interceptions in getting Philly to the playoffs. In eight games, his quarterback rating was 95.8, nearly identical to McNabb's in the first eight games of the season.

But Garcia had running back Brian Westbrook and one of the NFL's best offensive lines. In Tampa, he will have Cadillac Williams coming off a subpar season and a patchwork offensive line, including second round pick Arron Sears, a guard who missed every minicamp practice with an undisclosed injury.

"He'll be ready for training camp or we will have to change his name to Wal-Mart," said Gruden.

The head coach might be trying to keep it light, but last year he came under heavy criticism for being caught unprepared when Simms got hurt. In the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, Gruden stuck with rookie quarterback Bruce Gradkowski, who finished with a quarterback rating of 65.8. The Bucs dropped eight of their last 10 games.

But, more important, Gruden's star power lost some of its shine, particularly in his own locker room.

"There wasn't the open sniping like when Keyshawn [Johnson] was here," said one defensive player, "but there were whispers like 'What the hell is this guy trying to prove?' I think Jon knows he screwed up."

Perhaps as a facetious swipe at his critics, right now Gruden is carrying seven quarterbacks on his roster, including Plummer. There is hope that Simms will be back for training camp in five weeks. But at minicamp this week, Simms' delivery looked labored and awkward. He had a bad hitch in his throwing motion and admitted that the scarring left over from the surgery is interfering with his mechanics.

"I've gotten into some bad habits," said Simms, who has been leaning on his father, Phil, and his coaches for advice on how to overcome this setback.

"People always think it's arm, arm, arm when throwing the football," he said. "But it's the legs, the hips. And I think since I had the scar down there in the middle it just got me to using my arm all the time instead of using my body. And that's the habit that I'm trying to break right now."

Gruden indelicately called Simms "a work in progress right now," and said he has to "earn" his way back into the mix. At minicamp, Garcia took nearly every snap with the first-team offense.

That's why Gruden is so adamant about keeping a roster spot open for Plummer. If Simms can't make it, Gruden wants an experienced backup for Garcia. Another season of turning to Gradkowski could mean the end of Gruden in Tampa.

"We're talking about Jake Plummer here," Gruden said. "So, we'll reserve a roster spot for the Snake a little while longer. If it were Jake Jones or Jake Johnson or Jake Gruden, we'd probably bypass the holding pattern that we're in right now. At this point, he's retired. Hopefully, at some point he changes his mind or reconsiders."

Sources say there is little chance Plummer is coming out of retirement to back up Garcia in Tampa. Nevertheless, Plummer has yet to file his retirement papers officially with the league.

In the meantime, Garcia has Gruden's attention. The Bucs were the only team in the league last year not to take a single snap out of the shotgun -- even while Simms struggled with batted balls and seven interceptions. Garcia has convinced Gruden to use the shotgun this season.

"To tell you the truth," said Garcia, "it didn't take much convincing."

At this point, Gruden might be willing to try anything.

Sal Paolantonio covers the NFL for ESPN.