On Saturday, Shaun King became the first rookie QB to win an NFL playoff game in 23 years
You didn't have to have your set on Saturday afternoon to know what the announcers were saying about Buccaneer QB Shaun King. No rookie quarterback had started an NFL playoff game since Oakland's ill-fated Todd Marinovich in 1991, and no rookie had one a postseason contest since the L.A. Ram's Pat Haden in 1976. With just four first-half completions for 45 yards and several overthrown passes, King was probably being compared more to Marinovich than Haden.
Then an amazing thing happened. The Tulane rookie, who had impressed all onlookers in the month of December with his poise and calm leadership, directed one of the most stunning comeback victories in Buccaneer history. King directed two touchdown drives in the last 20 minutes of regulation to produce a 14-13 Tampa Bay win in the team's NFC Divisional Playoff game against the Redskins. Over that span, King completed seven of 11 passes for 79 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions, and also drew another 31 yards on a pass interference penalty.
"I started throwing the ball to our guys," said King of the second-half turnaround. "I felt comfortable out there at the onset of the game, but I was just a little off on my passes. I felt like Washington did a really good job of giving me different looks. I never the saw the same look twice early in the game and it took me a while to make that adjustment."
But the specifics of the comeback were much more impressive than the numbers. Consider the plays that King made in practically the most pressure-packed situation possible:
· On second-and-12 from the Bucs' own 25, with his team down 13-0 and approximately four minutes left in the third quarter, King threaded an incredible 16-yard touch pass between two Washington defenders to the 5-8 Warrick Dunn on the edge of the right sideline. · On the next snap, King checked off his first two reads and found TE Dave Moore over the middle for a 17-yard gain to the Washington 42. · Two plays later, King lofted a high throw to Dunn down the left sideline, who was in position to make the catch at the 11 before S Leomont Evans shoved Dunn out of bounds and drew the penalty. · On the next snap, on first down from the Washington 11, King took a quick slidestep left to avoid two Washington rushers who had barreled up the middle. Scrambling left, King appeared to be running, but pulled up at the last second and threw a nine-yard pass to FB Mike Alstott down to the two. · After Alstott had scored a touchdown on that drive to cut the Bucs' deficit to 13-7, King got another opportunity to put his team in the end zone when DT Warren Sapp recovered a fumble caused by DE Steve White at the Redskins' 32. The drive took an early blow when King was sacked for a 10-yard loss on first down. On second-and-20, King rolled right, then threw a perfect spiral across his body to WR Bert Emanuel, who was slicing across the field in King's wake. Emanuel picked up 17 yards on the play, preserving the drive. · The Buccaneers earned a first-and-goal at the three on that drive, but gained just two yards on the next two plays, resulting in a third-and-goal from the one. King took the snap and faked a handoff to Alstott, then spun 270 degrees to the right, only to see unblocked Washington rusher Ndukwe Kalu already upon him. With just the smallest instant to react, King leapt and threw a perfect pass to TE John Davis for a touchdown, just as Kalu began to slam King to the ground.
That string of plays would be a remarkable testament to the future of a rookie quarterback in any game. In a post-season contest, in which the winner would earn the right to play in the NFC Championship Game, they were nothing short of astounding.
"The second touchdown we scored, we called a boot(leg) and they actually played it very well," said Buccaneer Head Coach Tony Dungy. "Shaun just made an incredible play. He had to make a quick and accurate throw, and he did it. That's the thing about Shaun…no matter how poorly things go, it seems like he'll make the clutch play for you at the end of the game."
Last April, King was the sixth quarterback taken in a draft that was lauded for its amazing depth at the position. The first three picks of the opening round were quarterbacks, and five of the first 12 selections were signal-callers. After that run, King was taken next, by Tampa Bay in the second round with the 50th overall selection. With the playoff field now narrowed to six teams, only two of those six QBs are still playing, and Minnesota's Duante Culpepper hasn't taken a snap for the Vikings and won't on Sunday. Most of those quarterbacks went to teams that were expected to struggle, but that does not lessen the impact that King is making. He has already had a significant impact on his teammates, who have an ever-growing faith in their rookie field general.
"He was very poised," said Alstott. "His leadership really came out today."
"The rookie is special, but I guess he's not a rookie now," added Sapp, though the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year wasn't quite ready to remove the label completely. "He still has to get breakfast for us."
That traditional first-year task, in which one rookie each week brings breakfast for the entire team on the final day before the game, will end for King when this season comes to a close. King could have been free of the burden on Saturday, but he chose to prolong it, along with the Buccaneers' very-much-alive Super Bowl hopes. Now that's a team player!