Buccaneer QB Shaun King was the NFL's most impressive rookie in December
Of the four NFL Offensive Rookie of the Month awards handed out by the NFL this season, two went to first-year quarterbacks. That's not a surprise considering last April's draft, which started with three quarterbacks and included five signal-callers in the first 12 picks. The '99 draft drew instant comparisons to the famous Elway-Marino-Kelly-Eason-Blackledge haul of 1983, and it was no shock to see most of this year's hurlers getting early auditions for starting roles.
However, it is most definitely a surprise, and a pleasant one at that, to see Tampa Bay's Shaun King emerge at the top of the rookie list in the season's final month. Drafted in the second round, 50th overall, King was earmarked for at least a year of learning from the sidelines. When both Eric Zeier and Trent Dilfer suffered significant injuries, King was forced into the starting role, and he has performed marvelously. On Friday, the NFL bestowed on King the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Month for December award.
To Tampa Bay General Manager Rich McKay, King's Player of the Month honor is the reward for making the most of an unusual opportunity. "Most quarterbacks that are taken high in the draft, first or second round, are forced into starting for bad teams," said McKay." "This was a unique for Shaun, but to Shaun's credit, he stepped in and made the most of it. He exceeded what most people would expect from a rookie, specifically because the first game he started was Monday Night Football against the Minnesota Vikings. It was truly amazing that he was able to handle that situation and play as well as he did."
That King won his award for the only month in which he played (barring 30 snaps in a November 28 game in Seattle) is not an indication that he came out of nowhere. Though it wasn't the course originally plotted for him, King's gradual ascension to the starting role in his first year actually worked out quite well for him and the Buccaneers. "It was a different situation. It's just very unusual that a rookie quarterback would get the opportunity to come in and play for a good team, after having played a lot in preseason, then being number three for a number of weeks, then getting a lot of reps at number two, then coming in as the number. So, very unique circumstances. Not many people are put in those circumstances."
As McKay delineated, King had an outstanding pre-season but was the Buccaneers' inactive third quarterback for the first seven games of the regular season. At Detroit in game seven, number two QB Zeier was promoted to the starting role but suffered a ribcage injury that would keep him out for over a month after that. Dilfer returned to the starting role and performed superbly for three weeks with King elevated to the primary backup role. In the season's 11th game, the aforementioned Seattle contest, Dilfer sustained a broken right clavicle just into the second half and, with Zeier still unable to play, King was bumped up to the starting role.
King was an instant revelation. He expanded the Bucs' 6-3 halftime lead over the Seahawks into a 16-3 victory, then helped the team to a 4-1 record in the season's last five weeks. During his month of starting, King proved to be accurate (61% completion rate), efficient (seven touchdowns versus just four interceptions) and, above all, poised under pressure. Each of Tampa Bay's last five games had either first place in the division or a playoff spot on the line.
That King has been tested under fire and has come out un-singed is comforting for Bucs fans with the playoffs looming. King will be the first rookie QB to start a playoff game since Todd Marinovich lined up under center for the then-Los Angeles Raiders at Kansas City (12/28/91). The Raiders lost that wild card matchup 10-6. The last rookie QB to start a playoff game and lead his team to a victory was Pat Haden, who guided the Rams to a 14-12 divisional playoff win at Dallas (12/19/76).
"It's no different for Shaun," Bucs head coach Tony Dungy says. "He's been through this a lot, going 11-0, playing in the bowl game and trying to get to 12-0 at Tulane. That's huge and he came through that last year. Playing Minnesota on Monday night in your first start -- not many people have that opportunity and he came through that one OK. In the playoffs, there's going to be more exposure, a little bit more media coverage, but Shaun will do fine. I don't think it will be any different for him than any of these last few games that we've played."
McKay concurs with Dungy's assessment: "The only difference to me (between King's debut and the playoff game) is that now he has proven to people that he will be unfazed by the fact that it will say playoff in front of the game as opposed to regular season. I don't think that affects him much. I think he's shown you that. As far as the league goes, no, you don't see a lot of rookies that start playoff games."
Most teams, including the Buccaneers, don't have a lot of rookies outshine the rest of their first-year peers for an entire month. This is just the fourth such award given to a Tampa Bay player, following wins by FB Mike Alstott in November of 1996, WR Karl Williams in December of 1996 and RB Warrick Dunn in September of 1997. King's performance in December is a key reason that the Buccaneers are still talking football in January.