In recent weeks, Shaun King has impressed his coaching staff with his fine work under the spotlight of the playoff drive
By Kevin Kaminski, NFL Insider for NFL.com
It hasn't always been good to be the King this season.
Maligned by the masses during a four-game losing streak that threatened to unravel Tampa Bay's season, the Buccaneers' Shaun King reached his day of reckoning far sooner than many quarterbacks with his limited experience.
But not only did the second-year starter weather the crush of expectations, he emerged as a bona fide leader as Tampa Bay closed with seven victories in its final nine games - including a Monday-night classic against St. Louis that propelled the team into the postseason.
"People have judged Shaun by extremes too much," says Tampa Bay quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen. "At one point, fans were ready to flush him away, like he was the guy holding us back from doing anything offensively. Then, after the Rams game, people were ready to put him in the Buccaneers' Hall of Fame.
"The answer lies somewhere in the middle. He's a (young) quarterback who's improving and who's shown a knack for being able to win some big games and make the big play at the right time. But there are still going to be speed bumps along the way."
Prior to this season, those bumps had been few and far between. As a senior at Tulane, the athletic, 6-foot, 225-pounder set a Division I-A record for passing efficiency (183.3), while leading the Green Wave to a 12-0 season.
A comparative afterthought in the vaunted quarterback class of 1999, King was selected fiftieth overall - long after the likes of Tim Couch, Donovan McNabb, Akili Smith, and Daunte Culpepper were off the board.
But when Buccaneers starter Trent Dilfer went down with a broken clavicle in Week 11 that season, King emerged as the toast of the rookie signal callers. He guided Tampa Bay to four wins in the final five regular-season games, a divisional playoff victory over Washington, and had the Bucs on the Rams' 22-yard line in the final minute of an 11-6 loss in the NFC title game.
Against that backdrop, the Buccaneers were a fashionable Super Bowl selection in 2000, but lost in the hype was the fact that King entered the season with only seven NFL starts (including playoffs) to his name. Moreover, the team was implementing a fresh offensive system under new coordinator Les Steckel, with different terminology and several new players - including wideout Keyshawn Johnson, center Jeff Christy, and guard Randall McDaniel.
"I think it's been completely forgotten that you're still talking about, essentially, a first-year player," Christensen says. "And that was one of the curses for Shaun - how easy it came last year to end up in the championship game … but one of the most positive characteristics has been his resiliency. Though the dynamics in our huddle changed incredibly this past year, Shaun has done a great job of handling all the different personalities and just staying the course."
That course took a decidedly southward turn during a four-game stretch in which King threw just two touchdown passes and six interceptions, to go with eight sacks and two fumbles. But King regained his bearings with a 267-yard, 4-touchdown performance in a 41-13 thrashing of the Vikings that sparked the Buccaneers' late-season surge.
In the epic 38-35 Monday-night victory over the Rams, King engineered arguably the greatest game-winning march in Tampa Bay history. The 13-play, 80-yard drive included an 8-yard completion to Jacquez Green on third-and-3, King's memorable 29-yard dash off a lateral from running back Warrick Dunn, a gritty 6-yard scramble to convert a fourth-and-4 play, and a 22-yard completion to Reidel Anthony that set up Dunn's 1-yard touchdown run.
"It was absolutely gut wrenching to watch that last drive," Bucs defensive tackle Warren Sapp said after that game. "But I saw Shaun's face from the sideline. He had that look. And I knew he was going to get it done."
Whether King can continue to get it done in the first round of the NFC playoffs this Sunday at Philadelphia remains to be seen. But over the past several weeks, Tampa Bay players and coaches will tell you they've seen their 23-year-old quarterback come of age.
Since completing 11 of 15 passes in a driving rainstorm at Miami, King has demonstrated that he can wing it if Tampa Bay decides to loosen the reins on its typically conservative attack. Against the Rams and Packers (a 17-14 overtime loss that Tampa Bay was in position to win in regulation), King attempted a total of 80 passes - 13 more than he did in the previous four weeks combined. For the season, King completed 54.4 percent of his tosses for 2,769 yards and 18 touchdowns with 13 interceptions.
"This recent stretch showed us a lot about our quarterback," Christensen says. "What he did in Miami, against the Rams, and (at Green Bay) was way beyond what point he is in his career.
"Each time out, I think I'm becoming a better leader, a better quarterback, a better clock manager. And this time next year, I think I'll still be getting better."