In the glow and grime of one of the more intriguing Opening Day victories in Bengals history, linebacker Thomas Howard caught Bruce Gradkowksi's eye Sunday and smiled.
"You just do that, don't you?" said Howard, one of the many new Bengals on this pruned roster, and indeed Gradkowski does.
Gradkowski, the backup quarterback with blue-collar numbers and high-end finishes, came off the bench Sunday to notch his sixth game-winning drive in the fourth quarter or overtime of his career. While Andy Dalton iced his right wrist in the second half, Gradkowski staged another cold-blooded rally like the one in Tampa that ended up knocking the Bengals out of the 2006 playoffs and the one in Oakland in 2009 with Howard that knocked the Bengals out of a playoff bye.
But he's also done it to the Eagles and Redskins, not to mention his hometown Steelers when he doused their swaggering defense with three fourth-quarter touchdown passes on their own turf in a 2009 game.
Which is slightly to the left of phenomenal for a guy that has just six starting victories in his 20 starts spaced out since the Buccaneers took him in the sixth round of the 2006 draft and is working for his fourth team on a career passer rating of 66.5.
Textbook Gradkowski is not. Even he'll tell you he's got an offensive lineman's mentality.
"My brother's an offensive lineman, but I got the family genes for playing quarterback," Gradkowski said. "I love those guys and that's how I play the game."
Surviving quarterback in the NFL is more about the playbook than the textbook. Sunday is why the man that wanted him wanted him here.
"He's a guy we know we can count on," said Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden. "His won-loss record and passing percentage isn't comparable to some of the great quarterbacks. But for what we're asking him to do if Andy goes down, he's a perfect fit. He's a great guy to have in the locker room, he's got a lot of input on game day and during the week, and players rally around him."
The Bengals may very well have to rally around Gradkowski again in that 21st start Sunday in Denver (4:15 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12). Although it appears he had dodged broken bones, Dalton's availability for this week is unknown because the wrist is so important in gripping the ball. The Bengals went into Tuesday's off day wondering if he could throw.
But they know what they've got in Gradkowski. Especially after his relief job on Sunday.
With the game slipping away in a bleak rain with about five minutes left, Gradkowski called an audible to stabilize the winning drive. Checking from a run to a pass, Gradkowski was rewarded with a wide open running back Brian Leonard in the flat for that 22-yard play that set up the winning touchdown when Gruden called the now infamous Oh Snap Snap.
It caught the Browns sleeping for a quick 41-yard touchdown pass to rookie wide receiver A.J. Green and brought the Bengals back from a 17-13 deficit. But as Gruden said, "The quarterback did a great job disguising his intent." Gradkowski was just 5-of-12 passing for 91 yards, but he needed to make two plays, and his six-year savvy did.
"I'm not saying he's the end all and be all," said his former Toledo roommate and teammate Andrew Hawkins, a wide receiver on the Bengals practice squad. "But he'll do whatever it takes to win. That's his only focus and he'll work hard at that. He'll find something in the offense to make it happen.
"All he wants to do is win. He's as tough as nails. If I'm walking through a back alley in the dark, he's the guy I want with me. He's the underdog. That always been his M.O. They didn't think he could play at Toledo and would bring in junior college guys until he had a breakout year when he was a junior."
The underdog enjoyed one of those hero moments Monday night at the first Bengals Line radio show of the season at the Holy Grail, a sports bar not more than a 22-yard dump pass from Gradkowski's new downtown digs. As Dave Lapham and Lance McAlister feted Gradkowski on the air, his wife Miranda waited for him to return to the table and finish his salad while she recalled the emotions of Sunday.
"I was at the game sitting between my sister and one of my best friends and I thought he was just warming up at halftime," she said. "Then I saw him put on his helmet and run on the field and I grabbed them and said, 'Oh my God, he's going in.' My stomach was turning over ... you just never know ... he's reliable and hardworking, and he's used to coming in like that."
If Gruden can rely on Gradkowski, so can Miranda. They met at a service several years ago at the University of Toledo's Corpus Christi University Parish and while they were on campus a year ago, he proposed outside the church. They got married there four months ago.
"There's a romantic side to him off the field," she said. "When I got back from the game Sunday, he had a bottle of wine waiting and that was nice."
But Gradkowski is more like Iron City. He played in the same high school league on the outskirts of Pittsburgh as Joe Namath, Dan Marino and Joe Montana, and threw for more yards than any of them. His folks are still working there, where his father is a mailer for The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and his mother is a dental assistant. He has an idea that's where the steel-belted reliability comes from.
"I had a blue-collar upbringing," Gradkowski said. "I'm not flashy. I love football. I just want to play."
"He's like those Western P.A. guys," said Hawkins, a 5-7 grinder himself from Johnstown, 70 miles east of Pittsburgh. "They just work at it. That's what he is."
Miranda, a nurse, and Gradkowski have a condo from his days in Tampa, but they prefer to live in Toledo and how often does Toledo win that one? She comes from about an hour away in Tiffin, Ohio, so it seems to be a perfect offseason spot for a blue-collar quarterback.
"It feels like home because we're both close to our families," Miranda said. "It's a pretty short drive to be able to get to see everybody."
And when the Gradkowskis go there, they'll most likely be in his Chevy Tahoe.
"No, he's not flashy," Hawkins said. "We used to get on him because he'd have the same shoes for three years. He'd wear them to class and then wear them on the field in a walkthrough."
Things haven't changed. The other day Miranda noticed in his sneakers that there was material sticking out near the heel.
"Yeah," he told her. He was getting blisters, but he wasn't looking forward to losing his favorite pair of sneakers.
Now, Gradkowski is looking for the same kind of comfort with his new team. That's what means more than, say, ranking the comebacks.
"I don't know; any comeback is great," Gradkowski said. "I think this one meant so much because I'm new. The guys still don't know what I can bring. They're still getting a feel for me and trying to get comfortable."
If they're like Howard, the guy that played two years with Gradkowski in Oakland, they know this could happen again soon. A week after he beat the Bengals in 2006 on his last throw of the day with 35 seconds left, Gradkowski came back the next week to beat the Eagles late. Then two weeks after the Raiders beat the Bengals in 2009 on his tying 29-yard TD pass with 33 seconds left that preceded a fumble to set up the winning field goal, he torched the Steelers.
After Gradkowski finished his salad, he glanced at the opening moments of the Patriots playing Miami and wondered about the stat.
Six fourth-quarter wins for three teams.
"That's the exciting part of football," he said. "Where it's win or lose and it's putting it on the line in the last quarter or the last two minutes."
He just does that, doesn't he?