The play of rookie Shaun King helped make a tough decision easier for Tampa Bay
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers made their first significant moves of the 2000 off-season on Tuesday, just two days after the season came to an end in the NFC Championship Game. The Buccaneers re-signed a pair of valuable linebackers, Shelton Quarles and Alshermond Singleton, but received more attention for choosing not to extend the contract of QB Trent Dilfer. Though that decision may have seemed swift, it really couldn't have waited, as General Manager Rich McKay explained on Wednesday.
"It was based on the contract language itself," said McKay. "We almost had to address it this week. We were supposed to do it by the 15th (of January), but we agreed on an extension to let the season end. But that extension was going to expire quickly and, in talking to (Dilfer's) agent, he wanted the announcement sooner rather than later, and I can understand why. So we did it yesterday. It could have been Thursday or Friday…it couldn't have been any later than Friday."
For the Buccaneers' off-season planning purposes, there was reason to move forward immediately. Pushed back by the team's deep run into the playoffs and coming up hard against the Pro Bowl, at which the team's coaching staff will direct the NFC squad, the Bucs were in danger of running headlong into the beginning of free agency. That period will begin on February 11, just five days after the Pro Bowl in Hawaii.
So the Bucs' annual postseason team assessment has been accelerated. The team's entire coaching staff is in the process of a player-by-player evaluation that will determine what the Bucs are looking for in free agency and the draft. That includes the suddenly thin quarterback position, where only rookie starter Shaun King will be under contract after February 11. Backup Eric Zeier, who appeared in two 1999 games with one start, is currently under contract for just this season. "We're pushed back a couple of weeks – obviously, pushed back happily by the playoffs – but we'll catch up," said McKay.
"Basically, we're in the process of evaluating all of our guys," he continued. "One of those guys will be Eric. We like Eric, but we have to sit down and evaluate how does he fit, how does he fit salary-cap wise and so forth. That applies to Eric Zeier, to Hardy Nickerson, to all those guys. We'll do that over the next two weeks, and the coaches go to Hawaii next week, so that makes it a little more difficult for us. But we'll spend time doing that, and Eric will obviously be one of the guys we talk about."
They will not need to bring up Dilfer in those meetings, but McKay spoke about him on Wednesday and offered nothing but praise. "I think people will write in the articles tomorrow and people will talk about, 'Well, he was a failure,'" said McKay. "That couldn't be further from the truth. When he came to this franchise, the franchise hadn't been to the playoffs in 12 years, the franchise hadn't had a winning record in 12 years. The franchise hadn't accomplished much. As the quarterback, he was here when we went to two playoff appearances in two different years, so he can't be looked at as a failure in any regard. It's just one of those things that, another player has come in and played well, and based on the salary cap situation that now exists, you've got to make a choice. Tough choice, but one you have to make.
"We structured Trent's contract at the outset to be a contract that would have various windows in it. The first window would come after the fourth year, to see if he was still our starter and going forward. The next window was after this year, again looking to see if he is our starter and going forward. Circumstances have changed from the fourth year to this year, one of the things being Shaun King. After you look at it, then look at the numbers, it just became impossible for us, from a salary-cap perspective, to say it was in our best interest to exercise the option."
The Buccaneers may face a spring of tough choices as they try to improve on an offense that ranked 28th in the league in 1999. It is at least encouraging that the team is not hamstrung by salary cap issues, in part because of Tuesday's decision.
Are the Buccaneers under the cap for 2000? "Yes, a good ways," said McKay. "Not a tremendous amount, because we have two (first-round draft choices), but we have plenty of room to maneuver in the salary cap when free agency opens. This move obviously affects it, because of the signing bonus proration it would have taken to exercise the option, and Trent had a big 'paragraph-five', meaning his salary for next year, too, which all comes off our cap. So, it's a significant change."
The Buccaneers may need that room to address the shortage at quarterback and potentially on the offensive line. McKay spoke to both issues on Wednesday.
Quarterback: "Well, we have to add one, because we really don't have any other than Shaun that are under contract. So, we will add one. Now, Eric obviously will be a major factor in that, so we just have to sit down and do those evaluations.
"We'll look at a veteran. You're looking for somebody that has played in the league and is confident to come in and play. You're not looking for somebody to come in and compete and take Shaun's job. That's not number one on our criteria list. But you're looking for a veteran, you're looking for somebody that can start (if necessary), because we feel like we're a good football team and that's not a position we want to overlook."
Offensive line: "Yes, I think that offensive line is an area where, when we enter free agency and we look a the draft and the off-season, we have to dedicate some money to it, because we have two guys that are up (in contract terms) in Paul Gruber and Tony Mayberry. I can see us focusing on that a little bit.
"As it always is, (the free agent crop is) somewhat inconsistent (at offensive line). There's some good players, but it's not as deep as you'd like. With 31 teams, it's hard. Free agency is not a place to make your football team. It's a place to complement your team, to plug someone in, but it's not a place to make your team. At least, we haven't taken that approach."
The Bucs do take a very studious approach each off-season, and that process is already well under way. "We've always done a pretty good job, I think, of evaluating our football team, taking our time and making sure we do it right," said McKay. "We'll do that again this year; we just started a little later than usual."