By ROY CUMMINGS rcummings@tampatrib.com
Published: Oct 11, 2004




NEW ORLEANS - For the first time since December, a scoreboard clock wound down to zero with the Bucs holding a lead Sunday.
You wouldn't have known it from walking through their locker room.

The Bucs' 20-17 victory against the Saints produced the season's first collection of postgame smiles, but some frowns remained.

``It's hard to celebrate right now,'' linebacker Derrick Brooks said. ``There definitely are some heavy hearts in here.''

The heaviest belonged to quarterback Chris Simms, who couldn't finish his first pro start after spraining his throwing shoulder on a first-quarter sack.

As of late Sunday, no one was sure just when the left- handed Simms would be able to make his second pro start.

Simms was saying he could return to face the Rams next Monday, but he still wasn't able to lift his left arm over his head when he said that.

``Do I think I'm going to be out a month? No, I don't think so,'' Simms said. ``With some heavy massage, I should be able to play next week.''

Bucs coach Jon Gruden wasn't ready to rule Simms out of next week's game, either.

``He's day-to-day,'' Gruden said. ``That's really just about all I can say on the matter right now.''

The good news is that X-rays came up negative. An MRI is scheduled for today to confirm the nature of the injury.

The better news is that just about everything backup quarterback Brian Griese did after taking over for Simms was positive.

In his first regular-season action as a Buc, Griese completed 16 of 19 passes for 194 yards and a touchdown and helped Tampa Bay (1-4) break a six-game losing streak. The Bucs won on the road for the first time since their last visit to New Orleans on Dec. 7.

``He did a heck of a job out there,'' Gruden said of Griese. ``He should be the story today.''

He's certainly a big part of it. But so too is Jeff Gooch, the backup middle linebacker who did a credible job as a fill-in himself.

Gooch replaced starter Shelton Quarles, who left the game in the first quarter with a quad strain, and led the defense with nine tackles.

``You really have to appreciate the work of guys like Brian Griese and Jeff Gooch,'' Brooks said. ``We had guys make some attitude plays today.''

Cornerback Ronde Barber made one. He picked up a second-quarter Deuce McAllister fumble and carried it into the end zone for the Bucs' first touchdown.

Fellow cornerback Brian Kelly, who picked off an Aaron Brooks pass to snuff out a late New Orleans drive, also had one of those plays. And so did running back Michael Pittman.

On third-and-5 just before the two-minute warning, Pittman eluded three would-be tacklers and picked up a first down on a 10-yard run that allowed the Bucs to run out the clock.

``That's what we have to have, guys refusing to go down, guys wanting to make big plays,'' Derrick Brooks said. ``We got that today and now we have to keep going with it. We found something to build on.''

The offense certainly did. With rookie Michael Clayton making almost as much of an impact as a runner (two carries, 24 yards) as he did a pass catcher, the Bucs offense moved the ball consistently.

Simms directed the Bucs to their first score, a Martin Gramatica field goal, after a 70- yard drive that ended only after Clayton failed to maintain possession after an apparent catch in the end zone.

Simms went down at the end of the next drive, injuring his shoulder after being sacked by defensive end Will Smith, but Griese soon began moving the team.

He marched the Bucs 41 yards in six plays to set up a 53- yard Gramatica field goal in the second quarter and finished off a 71-yard drive in the third quarter by hitting a wide- open Ken Dilger with a 45-yard touchdown pass.

``We were just trying to stay out of the third-and-long plays as best we could and things worked out for us,'' Griese said. ``I felt real good out there. I felt a real energy with the offense.''

He wasn't the only one. Barber, whose fumble return gave the Bucs a lead (13-7) they never relinquished, said he also got some rare positive vibes from the offense.

``We needed something positive out of the guys on that side of the ball and we got it,'' Barber said. ``It was nice to see the offense play like that and help win a game for us.''

Most, including Griese, admitted it would have been even nicer had Simms been able to lead that offense from start to finish Sunday.

``I really feel for him,'' Griese said. ``I mean, he was so excited and I love that kid. And I really feel like he'd earned his shot.

``But I also feel that I can still play and I think I proved today that I can move the offense here. I hope it's going to be a steppingstone for us.''

Gruden seemed to think it would be. Though upset by the loss of Simms, he saw enough Sunday to walk away thinking the season may yet be salvaged.

``It's a start,'' he said as he headed toward the team bus, ``it's a start.''