Shaun King has the advantage of playoff experience over his good friend, Donovan McNabb
They came into the league together as the Class of '99, and now a nation of football fans wants to know who will be voted 'Most Likely to Succeed.'
Shaun King and Donovan McNabb share the same goals this postseason, in just their second year in the league, but one may now be the undoing of the other. That may be the only thing that will tarnish, if just slightly, the thrill of winning the Wild Card Game to be waged between Tampa Bay and Philadelphia on Sunday.
Their paths toward this collision course began when both players emerged as national NCAA stars, a pair of two-way threats that had NFL scouts taking heed. McNabb played at Syracuse and King at Tulane, which didn't exactly make them collegiate neighbors. However, they met as seniors in New Orleans at a workout session held by noted football training specialist Tom Shaw.
They became fast friends, bound even tighter by their shared circumstances. McNabb was the second player chosen in the 1999 draft and has emerged as the savior at quarterback in Philly. King slipped to the second round but rescued the Bucs' season last year and has led them back to the playoffs in 2000. King and McNabb called each other frequently during their rookie season, using each other as sounding boards. Those talks continue even into this week; next week, one will be making a consolation call.
"We'll talk a couple times, see what I can get him to tell me," said King with a laugh. "We're friends, so we talk all the time.
We talked (on Monday)," King revealed. "We actually didn't even get into the game part. I just asked him what time he was going to come get me Saturday."
There's some dispute as to who will pick up the tab for dinner on Saturday, but McNabb agreed on the value of their friendship.
"We're big supporters of one another and we want nothing but the best for one another," said McNabb. "Shaun's the type of guy that you always want to be around, because of that feeling you get when you're having a good time."
There's a little more than class pride in the equation. The 1999 draft made headlines when five quarterbacks – Tim Couch, McNabb, Akili Smith, Daunte Culpepper and Cade McNown – were selected among the first 15 picks in the first round. King had a lower profile as a second rounder but quickly jumped into the Class of '99 picture when he led his team deep into the playoffs as a rookie. Fourth-rounder Aaron Brooks was largely overlooked but is now in the snapshot as well since his dazzling debut as New Orleans' starter.
McNabb, Smith, Culpepper, King and Brooks are black. That all were drafted so prominently in 1999 was rightfully seen as a sign of progress. However, King believes this group needs to succeed to continue the destruction of the barriers that have been placed in front of black men who want to play the NFL's highest-profile position.
"We're both black quarterbacks, we're both in the Class of '99 that got all the accolades and has all the expectations," said King. "We just grew close through the whole process.
"I think we both understand that it's important that we go out and play well. All that will do is open up other doors for other quarterbacks coming up. Also, we're kind of on display as the young guys. You look around and there's four of us out of the 12 teams from the Class of '99, so it's a big opportunity for us to show that, even though you're young and even though you're going to make mistakes and learn, your team can still (succeed).
"It's a big sense of pride. Not only do we look at ourselves as individuals, but we look at that class and want each of them to do well. Ten years from now, we want to be remembered, just like they remember '83."
King refers to the similarly-hyped quarterback draft of 1983 that produced such all-time stars as John Elway and Dan Marino, along with Tony Eason, Todd Blackledge and Ken O'Brien.
Elway and Marino put up some numbers that may be difficult for any future QB to live up to, but King believes he's group has the same burning desire to win. King and McNabb are still works in progress, as the Bucs' starter will readily admit, but each has his team poised to reach the Divisional Playoff Round, even if only one will realize that goal.
"I think that's the competitor in us," said King. "The times we're ice cold, we're young and still learning. We're making mistakes sometimes. But I think there's a fire inside both of us. If you keep giving us the ball, we're going to find away to get our team over the hump, each and every Sunday."
McNabb echoed King's thoughts. "We want nothing but the best for our teams and we're willing to do whatever in order to get to that particular point."
King proved that down the stretch for the Buccaneers, particularly in a playoffs-clinching shootout with St. Louis in which he passed for 256 yards and two touchdowns. McNabb, of course, has emerged as a league MVP candidate for the magic he has worked in Philadelphia, leading the Eagles to an 11-5 record by throwing for 3,365 yards and 21 touchdowns and adding 629 yards and six scores with his legs.
Thrilled by his friend's success, King offered up a very succinct scouting report on McNabb.
"Playmaker," said King. "Makes a lot of plays. Can throw the ball – I think that's really underrated, that he can throw it up. He's done a lot for their offense. He's been a huge part of their success this year."
King made a point of praising McNabb's arm because he knows his friend continues to be pigeonholed by some observers as a run-first quarterback. That implies lesser passing skills and erodes at the progress King and McNabb believe they are making. This, you can believe, is one of the topics that the two discuss in their frequent phone calls.
"I think all Donovan's saying is to treat him like you treat everybody else," said King. "You look at some of the great quarterbacks over time; when they run the football, everybody says they're making plays, they're improvising, they're moving the chains. When Donovan does it, people say he's a running quarterback. That's all he's saying, treat me just like you treat everybody else."
Perhaps King can also offer McNabb some advice on handling the pressures of the postseason, since the Buccaneer quarterback was the first of that Class of '99 to see playoff action.
Almost from the beginning of his forced indoctrination at the helm of the Bucs' offense, which began late last November when Trent Dilfer suffered a season-ending shoulder injury, King surprised onlookers with his unnatural calmness. The then-rookie retained that even demeanor even as the pressure built all the way into the NFC Championship Game.
"I don't think it was overwhelming," said King. "As a competitor, it was the ultimate challenge. You really get up for it because there's 12 teams playing, so there's not a lot of diversions. There's always a football game on and everybody's watching. It's almost like the big Monday Night games, in a sense.
"It's a different atmosphere in the playoffs. Everybody's giving all they have every play, because it's lose and you go home."
If King wants to avoid such a fate this weekend, he's going to have to force it on his good friend. Certainly, neither he nor McNabb will take pleasure in that particular aspect of a victory on Sunday, but each can take solace in the fact that there are many good NFL years ahead for the Class of '99.
"The past is the past and the only thing we can worry about is the present," said McNabb. "If we worry about that and continue to take advantage of each opportunity that we have, I think the sky's the limit for both of us."