The New Orleans Saints pounded the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 31-14 Sunday despite their inability to run the ball successfully against the Bucs' defense.
The Bucs dropped to 2-6 on the season, 2-3 since rookie Bruce Gradkowski took over as starting quarterback for the injured (splenectomy) Chris Simms.
Though the Saints did score 31 points on the Bucs, I'll lay the general blame for the Bucs' woes on Gradkowski.
I'm not saying that Gradkowski is horrible by any means. I piped up before the season started saying that Gradkowski might end up being the steal of the 2006 NFL draft.
Having stuck my neck out only to pull it back in a little bit, let me explain.
Gradkowski is a young and inexperienced quarterback. I figured the Bucs would power up the running game to give Gradkowski some help when he became the starter.
Unfortunately, every team in the league is smart enough to figure that out. Teams are putting eight defenders "in the box"--an alignment designed to stop the run--and lately it's working pretty well.
Gradkowski's play is key in beating the run-first defensive schemes. If he connects on enough passes to keep picking up first downs, the run defense softens and the Bucs offense obtains some playcalling leeway.
Unfortunately, the rookie quarterback seems to have become less decisive in his throws since his first start against the Saints. His completion percentage has plummeted--though his touchdowns-to-interceptions ratio remains excellent (6 TDs and only one interception). It looks to me as though Gradkowski is checking down to the dump-off receiver too quickly. Is that a whole bunch to ask of a rookie quarterback?
It's also the key to the Bucs' success on the field this year--though with this loss to the Saints making the playoffs would hardly be short of miraculous.