QB Shaun King gets his first full road test
Coaches, teammates and competitors have tossed the 'p' word around quite a bit regarding the Buccaneers' rookie quarterback, Shaun King. Though the well-earned buzzword on King and his NFL infancy has been 'poise', there's another 'p' word that is beginning to crop up regularly.
King proved himself a capable reliever in his first regular-season action, replacing the injured Trent Dilfer in Seattle on November 28 and turning a 6-3 halftime lead into a 16-3 victory. He then proved capable of handling the intense spotlight of Monday Night football in his starting debut, directing a 24-17 win over the Minnesota Vikings on December 6, and the late-season pressures of a first-place battle, handing Detroit a 23-16 defeat just six days later.
However, that's apparently not proof that King can win on the road. The Bucs' rookie sensation hopes to banish that skepticism next, and he has the belief of his teammates and coaches.
"Every situation he's been in, he's made it work for us," said Head Coach on Tony Dungy on Saturday, from the team's hotel in California. "I guess we're coming to expect it."
Dungy already believes that King will ignore his surroundings and play the game as he has been coached. "He has an idea of how we have to win games," Dungy continued. "We have stressed to him that when there are plays to be made, if it's there, make the play. If it's not there, don't force it. We have other ways to win."
Dungy, of course, is referring to the team's top-notch defense, physical running attack and reliable special teams. He is not, however, intimating that the Bucs' are winning despite the play of their quarterback. Against the Lions last Sunday, King threw for 297 yards, two touchdowns and one interception, completed over 60% of his passes and allowed the Bucs to get away from their normal game plan. Tampa Bay ran just 19 times against the Lions, their lowest total of the season and their first victory in a game with less than 20 carries in over two years.
"Our offense is running the ball," said G Frank Middleton, who helped King pile up some extra passing yardage against Detroit with key blocks on successful screen plays. "We want to run the ball. If we'd wanted to run (against Detroit), we could have, but Shaun was hot. (Offensive Coordinator) Mike Shula does a good job of staying with the hot hand."
Middleton is also not concerned about King losing his poise in front of a hostile crowd after seeing the attitude of the Bucs' offensive unit on the field in recent weeks. "We're in the huddle laughing and dancing," said Middleton. "We're just having fun. (King) comes in and says 'I've got the call, shut up,' makes the call, we run the play and come back to the huddle and have fun again. Shaun is rallying around the team right now. He came in as the backup, and he has Mike (Alstott) and Warrick (Dunn) and all of our weapons around him. He doesn't have to win it by himself."
The composure that Middleton sees in the huddle has been evident in King for quite some time, even if the Bucs originally preferred to give him more seasoning before putting him into action. Though the Bucs' interest in King at last year's Senior Bowl in Alabama has been widely reported, Tampa Bay Quarterbacks Coach Clyde Christensen has even earlier memories of the St. Petersburg native.
"As a college coach at Clemson, I saw Shaun as a high school kid," said Christensen. "He even impressed us then. He had the same personality then that made people follow him and rally around him. He has always had that type of leadership ability."
Dungy got his first long look at the Senior Bowl, and saw the same thing, plus a professional attitude. "He came to that game with a purpose," said Dungy. "He wanted to show the NFL that he could play. He wasn't there for a vacation or a week of hanging out with buddies. He took it very seriously. The thing we noticed about him right away was how quickly he processed information. His whole personality, the way he handled himself…we saw something special."
King remains unflappable almost a year later, as he prepares for his third consecutive start, in front of the infamously ill-tempered crowd in Oakland. "I'm just going to go out there and take my swings, see what happens," said King.
"I'm a competitor," King added. "This is what I want. I don't want to play meaningless games. We have prepared during the week, so when we get out there, I just see it as another football game. You're going to make mistakes sometimes."
Not that King has experienced too much of that yet. Though the sample size remains small, King's passer rating of 92.2 reflects the excellence with which he has protected the ball and moved his team. He has fired five touchdown passes against just two interceptions and completed 58.7% of his passes. On the occasions when he was picked off, King impressed the Bucs' coaching staff and players with the way he immediately put it behind him.
"I just told Shaun, be your own man, everything else will take care of itself," said 13th-year veteran LB Hardy Nickerson. "That's what has happened. He is…you see it in his composure, his poise, how relaxed he is under center. At the same time, he has a great deal of talent. He has the disposition of a Randall Cunningham…very fluid like Randall throwing the ball, very smooth. That's the first thing you notice when you see him."
Clearly, King has gained the confidence of his teammates. Still, this is a quarterback who has a grand total of two starts, none in the playoffs as this year's postseason looms. His moves from third to second string and second string to starter were both prompted by injuries. "He's got to give somebody a crack for them to take his job now," said Christensen. "He's put himself in a situation where he would probably have to falter to lose his job.
Adds Christensen with a laugh: "He looks like veteran out there. I hope we can sneak a few more weeks in before he realizes he's a rookie."