Rookie Shaun King is likely to get his first NFL start next Monday
Quarterback Shaun King professes to have felt no nervousness last Sunday as he prepared to take over for injured starter Trent Dilfer in Seattle's raucous Kingdome. If he can say the same thing next week, then he is truly possessed of uncommon poise.
Though the official word will not be given until later in the week, Head Coach Tony Dungy indicated on Monday that King is likely to start the Buccaneers next game. That game happens to be in prime time. On Monday Night Football. Against the powerhouse Vikings. With first place on the line.
Dungy, for one, is not concerned that the rookie second-rounder will be affected by the atmosphere, should he get the start. "Shaun is going to do a good job for us," said Dungy. "We have a lot of confidence in him, and more importantly, his teammates have a lot of confidence in him. We'll have to see how the week goes for Eric (Zeier), but more than likely it will be Shaun, and we're going to prepare that way this week.
"I don't think the Monday Night games or the Vikings will have any effect on him. He'll play well. Shaun's biggest problem is that he hasn't played a lot of football since August. If he makes some mistakes, we'll just have to overcome them."
No rookie has started a game at quarterback for the Buccaneers since Dilfer himself in 1994. Dilfer got two mid-season nods during a 6-10 season, the first on the road against powerhouse San Francisco on October 23. Dilfer completed seven of 23 passes for 45 yards and one interception in the Bucs' 41-16 loss. QB Vinny Testaverde faced a very strong New Orleans team on the road in his first start as a Buccaneer rookie, on December 6, 1987, and threw for a team rookie record 369 yards in a 44-34 loss.
King faces at least as tough of a battle, but doesn't feel any added pressure. "I'm just excited," he said on Monday. "As a competitor, you couldn't ask for anything more. Plus, I get a chance to start in front of the hometown audience for the team I grew up rooting for. If you get caught up in the fact that you're playing on Monday Night Football or playing in front of a lot of people, you could get nervous. If you go into it just thinking it's a football game, you'll be all right. That's what I do."
"The team feeds off the quarterback," he continued. "If you get rattled, the team gets rattled, so you've got to keep your composure. The last 10 weeks, I've had the chance to get to know all of the guys, find out what motivates them and keeps them going. I've had the chance to get to know the offense and what Coach Dungy and Coach (Mike) Shula want out of it. The team has seen in practice what I am capable of doing."
Dungy's semi-announcement came on the heels of the news that Dilfer will definitely miss at least four weeks and very possibly may need six weeks to fully recover. Dungy indicated that Dilfer is holding out hope of returning this year, and the head coach won't discount the possibility, as Dilfer has proven to be a quick healer. However, Dilfer's current status and Zeier's lingering ribcage injury have left the Bucs shorthanded at that most important position. That will likely require a roster move before the week is up, and Dungy brought up the possible return of former Buccaneer backup Scott Milanovich.
"We're trying to figure out our options," said Dungy. "We have to do something by Thursday. There's a chance that Eric may not be able to go as the number two guy again this week. He wouldn't have been ready to be number two on Sunday (in Seattle). Scott has the advantage of knowing our system."
Dungy, of course, tends to take a 'whole-team' view of the situation, noting that his team has managed to put together a four-game winning streak without the offensive production for which they've been hoping. Dungy has confidence in King but has even more confidence that the rest of the team will step up to the challenge. "Championship teams find a way to win," said Dungy. "We're about to find out if we are a championship team."