At a Thursday press conference, QB Eric Zeier expressed pleasure at rejoining the Buccaneers
With all of the player transactions going on this week, it may be difficult for Tampa Bay Buccaneers General Manager Rich McKay to fit in some sleep. He did manage to catch one Z on Thursday, bringing substitute quarterback Eric Zeier back into the fold with a three-year contract.
Along with the offensive line, which has seen such notable additions and re-signings as Jeff Christy, Randall McDaniel and Jason Odom, the backup QB position was considered a primary focus by the Buccaneers this off-season. Zeier performed well in that role in 1999 after coming over from Baltimore in a draft-day trade, but his contract expired after the season, making him an unrestricted free agent. McKay indicated on Wednesday that Zeier was a primary target for the Bucs' personnel department.
"We liked Eric going in," said McKay. "He was a guy that was at the top of our list coming into free agency, and really nothing has changed."
The Buccaneers called a 1:00 p.m. press conference on Thursday to announce Zeier's return, marking the third straight day in which the media assembled at One Buccaneer Place to hear of a player signing. On Tuesday, the team announced the re-signing of versatile tackle Jason Odom, an unrestricted free agent who missed most of 1999 with a back injury but has started 41 games for Tampa Bay since being drafted in 1996. On Wednesday, the good news continued when 11-time Pro Bowl guard Randall McDaniel signed a three-year deal to continue his career in Tampa after playing 12 seasons as a Minnesota Viking. McDaniel, released by the Vikings in February in a salary cap related move, made it clear during his press conference that Tampa was his number-one destination. Zeier repeated those sentiments on Thursday.
"From the beginning, this is where I wanted to be," said Zeier. "My agent had some dialogues with other teams, but from the beginning, my instructions to him were, 'this is where I wanted to be.'
"The free agency period was a fun period, but I'm extremely happy to be in Tampa. It's where I wanted to be from the beginning. This is a great organization, a great coaching staff, a great city – I couldn't be more excited about being here. I'm looking forward to learning the new offense and getting going, and maybe we can take the next step to where we want to go."
All this activity - don't you just love it? Oh, that reminds us. The Buccaneers also signed TE Lovett Purnell on Thursday, addressing another position that currently has a shortage. With tight ends Dave Moore and John Davis currently unsigned as unrestricted free agents and Patrick Hape in the same position as a restricted free agent, the Buccaneers had only Jason Freeman and Henry Lusk on the active roster. Purnell, a fine pass-catching tight end who played alongside Ben Coates in New England for three years, agreed to a one-year pact on Thursday.
But Thursday's main focus was Zeier, whose NFL experience as a starting QB is attractive to the Buccaneers. Tampa Bay will head into the 2000 season with second-year player Shaun King at the helm but did not have another quarterback under contract until Zeier's return. Though King performed superbly when pressed into action down the stretch in 1999, his rookie season, he has just seven career starts, including the recent playoffs. The Bucs also discovered the importance of quarterback depth last season when their first two men in, Trent Dilfer and Zeier, suffered injuries that kept them out of action for significant periods of time.
Zeier actually earned the Bucs' starting job midway through the '99 campaign on merit, not injury, but saw his chance under center cut short when he sustained a ribcage injury in his first start at Detroit (10/31). In that game, Zeier completed 29 of 44 passes for 256 yards despite suffering that significant injury in the second quarter. He was then unable to return to action until December; in the meantime, Dilfer started the next four games but suffered a season-ending shoulder injury at Seattle (11/28), opening the door for King.
Zeier has appeared in 23 games and made 12 starts in his five-year career, with eight of those starts coming in the last three seasons. During that three-year stretch, which includes two seasons in Baltimore, Zeier has compiled an excellent passer rating of 85.4.
Overall, Zeier has thrown 534 career passes, completing 298 of them for 3,501 yards, 16 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. His outstanding career interception rate of 2.8% is an indication of Zeier's efficient style, an approach Head Coach Tony Dungy appreciates and a main reason Zeier was acquired in the first place.
"Eric knows how we do things, he knows the system here," said Dungy. "I think that's important. We obviously have a lot of confidence in him…we were set to go with him as a starter from midseason on last year. So we feel like he can win for us, and that's important."
Zeier and King actually joined the Bucs on the same day last year. Shortly before the team selected King in the second round of the 1999 NFL draft on April 17 it dealt a sixth-round draft pick to the Ravens for Zeier, a heady player that McKay described at the time as a 'reliable, young, veteran backup.' Zeier was then impressive enough in minicamp and training camp to stand out as a viable starting alternative.
The same thing happened with Zeier in Cleveland, then Baltimore when the franchise was relocated. Zeier was drafted by the Browns in the third round in 1995 and quickly emerged as an alternative to starter Vinny Testaverde. Zeier appeared in seven games as a rookie and started four, passing for 310 yards in his first career start a 29-26 win over Cincinnati.
After playing sparingly behind the Pro Bowl-bound Testaverde in 1996 (in Baltimore), Zeier again relieved Testaverde frequently in '97, starting three games, subbing in two others and compiling a 2-1 record as a starter and a 101.1 passer rating. The next year he rotated with the newly-acquired Jim Harbaugh, starting four games and seeing action in eight.
The most accomplished quarterback in University of Georgia history, Zeier left the Bulldogs with 18 SEC records and 67 Georgia standards. Perhaps his most impressive statistic was a career 2.64 interception percentage, the second-lowest in NCAA history. Zeier and his wife, Carrie, have a one-year-old son, Zeke.