Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Out of Nowhere

Two quarterbacks that started the season as footnotes will lead their teams into the NFC Championship Game

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QB Shaun King and his Rams counterpart, Kurt Warner, have one career playoff start each

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers and St. Louis Rams didn't meet in the pre-season in 1999, but if they had, it might have been the first ever Battle of the Trents. Tampa Bay's starting quarterback, Trent Dilfer, was working on a string of 64 consecutive starts while St. Louis newcomer Trent Green was ready to justify the hefty free agent contract that brought him over from Washington.

The Bucs and Rams will meet this Sunday in the NFC Championship Game, as it turns out, but both Trents will be watching from the sideline. How did they get there? Depends on what you mean by the question.

How did Dilfer and Green end up on the sideline? The great NFL equalizer, the injury bug, got them both, Dilfer with a fractured shoulder just as he was getting hot in November and Green with a torn knee ligament after one sizzling pre-season half of play.

Or, how did they get HERE, as in the conference title match? Either Dilfer or Green will join his team in the Super Bowl in large part because their replacements have exceeded all expectations. You won't find too many similarities between Sunday starters Shaun King and Kurt Warner statistically, unless your statistics of choice are wins and losses. King, for instance is only 22 and is playing for his hometown team. At 28, Warner is not actually young by NFL standards, even if he is (we should say 'was') green. He does hail from the heartland, as an Iowa native, but he's played as far away as Amsterdam. King is But both King and Warner have put their teams where many thought they wouldn't be.

Tampa Bay Head Coach Dungy professes a little less surprise that King and Warner were able to keep their teams on track towards the Super Bowl. "I think it just speaks of the way these two teams are put together," said Dungy. "I know our philosophy here is that you do whatever it takes to win and you've got to have team effort. And I know coach Vermeil and that's the way he preaches. Whatever it takes, and you need everyone. I think it's just a testament to these two organizations that we're here."

Dungy has had similar thoughts throughout the season when the Bucs have had to cope with injury losses, such as both starting tackles, two quarterbacks and the team's first long-snapper. It's a matter of quality depth and preparation of that depth. Still, neither King nor Warner were a good bet to playing in January, 2000. King was the Bucs' second round draft choice in April, the sixth quarterback taken in a QB-heavy draft and the 50th selection overall. He was slated for at least a year of sideline training. Warner was a little-known back-up, formerly of the Arena and World Leagues, who was at one time exposed in the Cleveland Browns expansion draft.

By now you know the rest of their stories inside and out. Briefly, King spent the first half of the season as the inactive third QB, as planned, behind Dilfer and new back-up Eric Zeier. However, Zeier moved into the starting role in the eighth week of the season but lasted only one start before being felled by a ribcage injury. Dilfer returned and won three games as the starter but saw his season end with a fractured clavicle in Seattle on November 28. Forced into an early debut, King impressed with his poise and calm leadership from the moment he took the field in the Kingdome. The Bucs went on to win five of their next six games, including four contests in which they trailed at halftime. King dazzled Buccaneer fans with his ability to make the big play at the key moment, as he did against Washington in the NFC Divisional Playoff game, throwing a blind game-winning touchdown pass while being thrown down by DE Ndukwe Kalu.

Warner quietly stepped in for a Rams team that was initially devastated by the loss of their new leader, Green, in the pre-season. The sorrow didn't last long in St. Louis, however, as Warner turned in one of the finest seasons ever by an NFL quarterback. Warner's passer rating of 109.2 ranked as one of the five best single-season totals in league history and he put his name right beside that of legend Dan Marino as the only QBs ever to toss over 40 touchdown passes in one year. The Rams, with Warner throwing to an emergent array of speedy skill players, scored the third-most points in NFL history (526), finished with the best record in the NFC (13-3) and averaged over 400 yards per game. In the Rams' 49-37 win over Minnesota on Saturday, Warner threw for 391 yards, missed just six times in 33 passes and connected on five touchdown passes.

"I think his best attribute is that he's a quick decision maker," said Dungy, who tuned in for most of Warner's first playoff game. "He's very accurate and he gets rid of the ball quick. They've got a lot of guys who can do things with the ball and he gets it to them in positions where they can run. He has had a great year."

Of course, Dungy is equally impressed with his own new signal-caller. "Shaun has given us a lot of confidence," he said. "Somebody just mentioned to me that we've come back some from ten-point-plus deficits where we hadn't done that in the past. I think the confidence that the whole team has is a reflection of Shaun. That's a lot to say for a rookie."

It's a lot to expect a rookie to win at all in the post-season. King became only the second rookie quarterback ever to start a playoff victory and the first since the Rams' own Pat Haden in 1976. He would like to be the first rookie ever to start in the Super Bowl. That would be an incredible feat, but no more so than Warner's near-instant rise from unknown to league MVP. Stranger things have happened. Just ask Trent…either one of them.

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