TAMPA, Fla. (AP) -Jon Gruden never stopped believing.
It took the coach three years to finally land the quarterback he felt could be a quick fix for Tampa Bay's sputtering offense. Jeff Garcia has rewarded the persistence by leading the Buccaneers to a surprising 4-2 start.
Gruden once heard Hall of Famer Bud Grant say that every coach needs three things: a patient wife, a loyal dog and a heck of a quarterback.
``And not necessarily in that order,'' the Bucs coach said. ``We have a heck of a quarterback and he gives us a chance.''
In the weak NFC South, the 37-year-old is providing the Bucs more than that.
Tampa Bay already has matched its victory total from last season, and the prospects for remaining atop the division look good with New Orleans (1-4) off to a slow start, Atlanta (1-5) reeling without Michael Vick, and Carolina (4-2) facing the challenge of playing the rest of the season without quarterback Jake Delhomme.
Nine wins, maybe even eight, might be enough to claim the division title. And while that wouldn't re-establish Tampa Bay among the league's elite, it probably would save Gruden's job after missing the playoffs three of the past four seasons.
The Bucs were 4-12 last year, their worst finish since 1991.
``I try not to compare this team to last year. ... It's not fair to these guys,'' Gruden said.
``We've got a whole new football team, honestly. We've got a long way to go. We've got some key injuries right now that are troublesome and we have to overcome. But we do have enough grit, enough stuff inside our building to rise up, and I know we'll be there (every) Sunday and compete.''
Indeed, overcoming injuries to left tackle Luke Petitgout and running backs Carnell ``Cadillac'' Williams and Michael Pittman will be critical to the team's chances of finishing strong.
The Bucs bolstered the tailback position Tuesday when they traded undisclosed 2008 draft picks to Kansas City for former 1,000-yard runner Michael Bennett, who, at least initially, will back up Earnest Graham.
But after rushing for just 47 yards the past two weeks, the big is question whether Gruden can get the running game going again with a young offensive line featuring four starters in their first or second season.
Garcia has been everything the Bucs hoped for, completing nearly 67 percent of his passes and throwing for five touchdowns and no interceptions through six games. But it's too much to expect the quarterback to carry the team the rest of the year without a decent running game.
``Everyone has to find a way to carry the extra load,'' said Garcia, whose passer rating of 103.6 is fifth in the NFL. ``Not that we're asking you to put any more work than you should already be putting into it, you should be trying to be a better player every single day, physically and mentally.''
The Bucs were interested is signing Garcia ever since he left San Francisco as a free agent in 2003.
The three-time Pro Bowl selection looked washed up during stints with Cleveland and Detroit in 2004 and 2005, but revived his career last season when he replaced an injured Donovan McNabb and went 5-1 as starter to help Philadelphia win the NFC East.
When the Eagles didn't re-sign him, the Bucs jumped at the opportunity.
Gruden and general manager Bruce Allen have been criticized for dismantling a team that won the Super Bowl five seasons ago and trying to rebuild with too many players in the twilight of their careers.
Truth is, this year they've revitalized the defense with an infusion of youth, and it's difficult to imagine where the offense would be without Garcia and receivers Joey Galloway, 35, and Ike Hilliard, 31.
Garcia, under contract through 2008, is the eighth starting quarterback Gruden has used in six seasons in Tampa Bay.
``He is a much better quarterback, no disrespect to anyone else we have had here, than we have played with,'' Gruden said of Garcia, whose current streak of 164 consecutive passing attempts without an interception is the longest in the NFL.
``He is more athletic, more instinctive, he's quicker, he plays fast, and he has tremendous experience.''
The way Garcia is playing, his fifth team in five seasons may be his last stop.
Hilliard calls him an ``ageless wonder,'' Galloway raves about the leadership and confidence he brings to the huddle, and Gruden certainly is happy he's settled in Tampa.
``I really don't know how many more years I have left in the tank. ... But with the way I feel physically and mentally, I believe that I can go another three or four years,'' Garcia said. ``We'll just have to see how things go.''

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