Third-year QB Shaun King has been very sharp this spring, according to Head Coach Tony Dungy
With the always looming possibility of injury, the depth of a team's roster can often be the difference in an NFL season. A Mike Anderson to fill in for an injured Terrell Davis can salvage a season in Denver, while the lack of another downfield threat to replace Joey Galloway can hamstring Troy Aikman in his last Dallas season.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, through shrewd drafting during the second half of the 1990s, have built a roster of above-average depth. However, that term, in Tampa, has generally been applied to linebackers and defensive backs, not quarterbacks. The Bucs have rarely seemed interested in turning to their backup passers in recent years.
That situation appears to have changed dramatically heading into 2001. With three quarterbacks – Brad Johnson, Shaun King and Ryan Leaf – who have extensive starting experience in the NFL, the Bucs now have rather enviable depth under center.
What that could mean in October or November is security against injury or difficult times. What it means in May and June is the first glimpse of what could be an intense competition for playing time.
The Buccaneers will not set a depth chart until just before training camp, set to begin July 29, but Offensive Coordinator Clyde Christensen has indicated that Johnson would enter camp in the number one slot. Both he and Head Coach Tony Dungy, however, conceded that the quarterback position, like all others, will be open for competition. While the just-concluded voluntary summer workouts were not intended to be used for evaluation in that competition, it was nevertheless the coaches' first extended look at all three hurlers together. The early reviews from Dungy are strong on all three.
Johnson, King and Leaf each have one or two traits that rank as above average for NFL quarterbacks, but raw scouting reports are fairly irrelevant at this stage. What Dungy and Christensen need to see is a field general who can successfully run the team's offense.
"The big thing is, we want to judge on scoring touchdowns," said Dungy. "That's what it's all about. Whoever can get us scoring touchdowns the most, that's who's going to play.
"Most guys who come up throw well enough to be successful quarterbacks in the NFL. The difference between how Joe Montana throws the ball and an average (quarterback) throws the ball is not all that much. Being able to make quick judgments and decisions, to think under pressure and to have the system down to where you're doing the right thing, that's what separates them."
As Dungy has mentioned on several occasions, King has an edge over the two newcomers in terms of understanding the system. Though Christensen is reworking the Bucs attack to some extent in his first year as the coordinator, the foundation is still the one King became familiar with in 2000. It may be that familiarity that has helped King look like an improved passer this spring.
"He's been very sharp," said Dungy of King. "He's making progress. This is his first time with basically the same system for two years, and you would expect him to make an increase and he has. He's thrown the ball well and he knows a little bit more than Brad right now, in terms of where guys are. He's comfortable with how we call things. When he walks to the line of scrimmage, he knows where guys are, and that's a big, big part of it.
"He knows a lot of times now who he's going to throw the ball to. It's not, 'Let me drop back and see who's open, try to figure out who's rushing. You know before you even take the snap what you're going to do with the ball.
"Shaun's going to be better this year, no question."
Johnson, however, is learning fast. Having been in basically this same situation with the Washington Redskins in 1999, after a trade brought him to the capital from Minnesota, Johnson has proven he can learn a new system quickly. In his first season with the 'Skins, Johnson threw for 4,005 yards and 24 touchdowns.
Having seen Johnson develop in Minnesota during his stint as the Vikings' defensive coordinator (1992-95), Dungy has not been surprised by the former Florida State hurler's success at either of his stops. Johnson's career has been marked by a passing accuracy in the rarified range of Montana and Steve Young, and Dungy knows that begins inside Johnson's head.
"It's a combination of knowing where your receivers are, knowing the weaknesses of defenses and being patient and just throwing to the open guys," said Dungy. "So often, quarterbacks get impatient and want to throw balls that they can throw but aren't necessarily the best throws to make in that situation. Brad doesn't do that. Brad throws to who's open, and that's why he's a 60% passer."
So what Dungy needs to see from Johnson is an absorption of the basics of the Bucs' attack, and that process began well enough in May and June to please the head coach.
"That's going to be the challenge for him, to get familiar with us in order to know where the guys are," said Dungy. "If he knows where they are, he'll hit the open man.
"It will be a year or two (before Johnson has the entire system down), but what we've got to do is keep our system simple enough at the beginning so he understands it. If we try to do everything and have him throw everything, he won't be as good. We really have to have a good feel for where he is as we keep putting stuff in. We don't have to have everything in for him to excel. He'll excel if he knows what's going on."
Leaf is in a similar situation, though he is not likely to get quite as many practice repetitions with the first team as Johnson. Still, the action was split fairly evenly during the voluntary workouts, and Dungy liked what he saw from the former San Diego passer.
"Ryan's doing well," said Dungy. "It's going to come for him. Ryan's big thing is learning what we do. He throws an exceptional ball. He's very smart. He's got all the tools that you're looking for and he's applied himself as well as anybody could since he's been here.
"It's going to be just a matter of learning what we do, learning our players and receivers, learning the system and then getting a chance to play."
As three experienced NFL starters, that is, of course, what Johnson, King and Leaf are all looking to earn. Dungy wants to put that mantle on someone who, simply, finds the open man on every play, someone who can consistently pinpoint the weakness in the opposing defense. That may mean knowing at the snap that options one and two won't work and skipping directly to option three, and it may mean not throwing into double coverage even if you believe you can complete the pass.
Most basically, it means scoring touchdowns. How well these three do that in August will determine the Bucs' true depth at quarterback.