Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Once and Again

Eric Zeier has had just one crack at the Bucs’ quarterback position in two years, but he could be called upon again this weekend

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QB Eric Zeier is ready to take advantage of another opportunity to play, in case he is needed this Sunday

Eric Zeier has played fewer snaps this season than almost all of his 52 Tampa Bay Buccaneers teammates, but he remains one of the most important players on the team.

Anyone who has doubted the significance of the backup quarterback position in the NFL should have done the following this past Sunday: flip the channels between games to catch the Dolphins, Ravens, Saints, Rams and Redskins, among others. Teams fighting for their playoff lives are, for a variety of reasons, putting their fate in the hands of different hurlers than took the ball on opening day.

So, even when you've thrown just three passes all season and played in just three games, you prepare each week as if you'll be hitting the field on Sunday. That's Zeier's approach, at least, and it might be important this Sunday when Dallas comes to town.

"Everybody always says you're one play away, and you really are," said Zeier of the backup QB's existence. "So you've got to be ready. It is a tough position. You don't get the reps and you've got to go in there and perform. But it's like that for everybody. So you've got to get ready and go play and hopefully you can do enough to help your team win the game."

In Zeier's case, that 'one play' may have already happened. Tampa Bay's starter, Shaun King, is struggling with lower back pain that took a turn for the worse after Sunday's win over Buffalo, in which King was sacked seven times. The injury is not considered terribly threatening, and smart money would be on King suiting up for his 18th consecutive regular season start, but there's no way to completely predict how quickly the pain and discomfort will subside.

So, even though the team still believes King will be under center on Sunday, his injury is prominent enough to at least bring the issue of Zeier's readiness to the fore. It should come as no surprise that Zeier believes he's prepared for the challenge, but he does admit that the long layoff would make it more difficult.

"It's been awhile since I've gotten into a rhythm, playing-wise," he said. "Previously, in my first four or five years, I had a lot of opportunities to play, I really did. The past two years, it's been a little strange. I haven't had that many opportunities, and when I did, I ended up getting hurt for the first time in my career. So I haven't had those opportunities to play.

And that's going to be a challenge to overcome, to shake off that rust from not playing and get out there and do it. Again, that's just the nature of the game. You have the preseason to get ready. You've got to stay mentally sharp throughout the season, and then when you get in there and get a chance to go, you've got to be ready. That's just part of the game."

As are injuries, which Zeier knows firsthand. Last season, after the Bucs limped to a 4-4 start, Zeier was awarded the quarterback job in Trent Dilfer's place and he made his first Tampa Bay start at Detroit on October 31. Though he performed reasonably well in a 20-3 loss to the Lions, completing 29 of 44 passes for 256 yards, no touchdowns and no interceptions, Zeier also suffered a ribcage injury that took over a month to heal.

Dilfer took the starting job back and performed quite well, but got hurt himself at Seattle on November 28. King came in by necessity, and by the time Zeier was healthy enough to play again, King had put a stranglehold on the job. So Zeier, who had played in 21 games and started 11 in his first four NFL seasons with Cleveland/Baltimore, stepped into the background again and hasn't seen any meaningful regular-season action since. He would relish another chance, though not at the expense of a hurt teammate.

"I'm very anxious," said Zeier. "The only reason you play the game is to be out there and get it done. Obviously, I don't want to go get the job because Shaun is hurt, but I want to do everything I can to help this team win football games. If I'm called on this week, I'm not sure how he's going to react or what's going to go on with that, but I've got to get ready to play and hopefully we can help this team."

If King is sidelined, Zeier will get his wish in a very pressure-packed situation. The Bucs are hanging on to the fringes of the NFC playoff scene, and may have to win all of their last four games to secure a spot. The team is very close to being involved in some literal 'must-win' affairs.

"Any time you go out there, you've got to win football games," said Zeier. "Obviously, in this situation, the pressure's probably a little bit heightened, but that's the way it goes. That's why you play, and you want to go out there and be successful in those types of games. It's going to be a good opportunity if it turns out that way."

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