Texas-ex Simms learning NFL ropes
Chris Simms sat alone at a table in the corner of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Celebration Hotel dining room after completing his second day of training camp.
While a few of his teammates finished the chicken stir fry or milled around the hotel lobby waiting for evening meetings to begin, Simms' head was buried in Head Coach Jon Gruden's playbook. The rookie quarterback, a lefty from the University of Texas, slowly flipped the pages in his binder trying to gain an understanding of the Buccaneers' offense, which can be one of the NFL's most complex systems.
Mastering plays like “West Left Slot, Fox Three Wide, Bingo Z Smash on One” – for that matter, simply remembering the entire play call – has kept Simms intensely busy during his short stay in Lake Buena Vista.
In fact, as he readily admits, the rookie sometimes feels as if his head is spinning from the different routes, formations and blocking schemes.
"The toughest thing about it is being able to spit out the plays because it's a lot of verbiage, and I get tongue-twisted every now and then,' said Simms, who left Texas as the school's career record-holder in competition percentage and pass efficiency rating. "I know I can run, and I know I can throw. It's all mental right now."
The 6-4‚ 220-pound southpaw had no problem proving his athleticism and arm strength during camp's early stages. Early on the second morning of camp, during a two-on-two passing drill with running backs and tight ends against linebackers and safeties, Simms looked impressive as he zipped short, quick passes to the intended targets. Gruden stood behind Simms for the entirety of the drill, watching his newest passing project closely and giving him pointers after each throw.
During the first days of camp, Gruden has scheduled several such opportunities to focus in on Simms' development, and he has been pleased with what he's seen. On both days of camp's first weekend, the coach made a point to comment on the rookies rapid improvement.
"I've been impressed with our rookie quarterback," said Gruden, who has taken to referring to Simms as "Simpson" perhaps to make him feel less like the targeted son of former NFL star Phil Simms and more like the common man. "What he did today against a defense of this caliber is a good starting point for him."
While Simms has practiced with confidence in his first NFL camp, he does admit that the speed of Tampa Bay's defense, particularly its front line, has required some adjustment. Competing against six Pro Bowlers is a difficult task for a veteran quarterback, let alone a rookie who still has to use his dinner time to absorb the playbook.
Fortunately, Simms has some high-caliber performers on his side, as well. Pro Bowl quarterback Brad Johnson and experienced backup Shaun King have been more than willing to help the rookie get through his first training camp. When he struggles with a play, Simms said he has not hesitated to go to Johnson for answers. In addition, each time the veteran quarterbacks take a snap, Simms walks through a repetition of their motions and play calls in his mind. Johnson understands the foreign-language training Simms is going through with Gruden's playbook, having been in a similar situation last year during the coach's first season in Tampa.
"With Chris Simms, the hardest part is just calling the play in the huddle and seeing if Jon can repeat the play to you again without yelling at you," Johnson said. "Chris is an extremely talented kid, and we'll see where he goes from there."
Quarterbacks coach Stan Parrish said Simms picked a smart tutor in Johnson.
"If he just buys into it and mimics [Johnson], he'll be fine," Parrish said. "Every great player at some point had a great player to model himself after."
Although Simms is not expected to see much playing time this year for the first time in his football career, he is approaching training camp as if he'll be the man under center for the Buccaneers. Simms knows that even the third-string signal-caller must be ready to play at a moments notice, even as a rookie, a fact Shaun King found out during his first NFL campaign in 1999.
Simms' history lessons actually go back farther than that. Growing up around the NFL game with his father, the long-time New York Giant and MVP of Super Bowl XXI, taught him that a lot can change during a 16-game season. That's what King, a rookie out of Tulane in 1999, learned when injuries to Trent Dilfer and Eric Zeier elevated him from third-string to the Buccaneers' starter by game 12.
King led the Buccaneers to the NFC Championship game and came within 22 yards of taking them to the Super Bowl.
There's no doubt that Phil Simms has played a large role in his son's development. However, the rookie said his father understands that he needs to tackle his first training camp on his own. Chris called his father after the first day of practice and plans to speak with him once every three or four nights during training camp.
"Dad's real good in kind of letting me grow up and mature for myself," Simms said. "I'm sure he wants to call every night, but he does a good job of holding back and waiting."
Wide receiver Joe Jurevicius understands how big the Simms' quarterback legacy is, particularly in the New York area. Jurevicius was a rookie with the New York Giants in 1998 during Simms' senior year at Ramapo High School in New Jersey when he went on to earn USA Today National Offensive Player of the Year honors.
Jurevicius said he was impressed by Simms' arm strength after two days of practices, and he is confident in the quarterback's ability to make the transition to the NFL.
"He's got quarterback in his blood," Jurevicius said. "Right now, it's time to get your feet wet, sharpen up the tools and learn what professional quarterbacks do and what they have to face."
Twice a day for the next four weeks, Simms will do just that.