QB Shaun King has succeeded on third downs in part because of his cool presence in the pocket
I say just one punt in Minnesota, you say too many fumbles. I say ninth in scoring, you say 20th in yardage.
I say 41.0% third-down success, you say problems on third-and-one.
Can't we just get along?
I think we can agree on this: the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' offense has had its ups and downs so far in 2000. There have been impressive flashes of potential, as in the team's ability to score 31 points in a tough Detroit environment last month. There have been frustrating regressions, as in the passing game's failure against the Jets the very next week.
And, really, none of this is a terrible surprise to the Buccaneers, besides perhaps the turnovers. When Les Steckel was brought in this spring to resurrect a moribund Tampa Bay attack, the team was confident, but not unrealistic. Steckel and Head Coach Tony Dungy told anyone who would listen that the offense might take half a season to gel, maybe more.
All of that was forgotten when the Bucs recorded 93 points during a 3-0 start and scored in a dazzling variety of ways. But some tough times have followed and the coaching staff is again preaching patience. "We're pleased with where we are," said Steckel. "We're not satisfied, that's for sure. We're discouraged right now, but we're not going to let that affect us in the future."
Here's the funny thing, though. The one area that did cause fans some springtime concern is quarterback, where the inexperienced but poised Shaun King was set to open a season as the starter for the first time. And that is the one area that has pleased Steckel the most so far this season.
"The biggest positive (on offense) has been the play of Shaun King, no question," said Steckel. "For a young quarterback, he's much farther along than I would have expected."
Steckel did not say 'perfect', or even 'outstanding'. He left no doubt, however, that he was confident in King's ability to run this offense. There are several likely reasons for this confidence; first and foremost, King is taking care of the football.
Through six games, King has been sacked just 11 times. While that is a testament to the improvement of the Bucs' offensive line, it is also an indication of heady play on the quarterback's part. King has bought into the notion that throwing the ball away is sometimes a good play, and he has also been effective scrambling for yardage, particularly in the last two games (six carries for 45 yards, one touchdown).
He has been picked off just three times, an excellent interception rate of just 1.7%, the lowest mark in the NFC. That pace would lead to a total of eight interceptions over a full season for King. In a 16-game season, no Buccaneer passing leader has thrown for so few interceptions since Doug Williams had eight in 1978. Williams threw 194 passes that season, just 22 more than King has through the first six games of 2000.
That protective nature has played a big role in the most startling part of the Bucs' offensive turnaround, red zone success. Steckel steadfastly refers to the area inside the 20s as the Green Zone, and his optimism is well-founded as Tampa Bay is third in the NFC and fourth in the NFL with a 66.7% red zone touchdown rate. The Bucs were dead last in the league in that category last year.
Against Minnesota on Monday, the Bucs slipped a bit in the Green Zone, scoring just one touchdown in four tries. However, they did convert the other three drives into field goals and have scored on all 18 of their Green Zone possessions this season. Already, Tampa Bay is one of only two teams who can still make that claim – Dallas is the other – and King is a big reason why.
"It's so atypical of us to jump offsides and make mistakes (in the Green Zone)," said Steckel. "Still, we met our goal of scoring every time in there, though we should have had more touchdowns. The main thing is, we're protecting the ball…at least the quarterback is."
King can do more than just protect, as it turns out. He can also create. The most obvious example of this is his recent work on third down. The Buccaneers were seven of 13 on third downs against Minnesota, six of 10 when they threw the ball. The Buccaneers, with their reliance on the running game, know they're going to face a significant number of third-and-shorts when the system is working. King has to show he can produce on third down.
At first blush, there isn't a noticeable difference between King's work on first and second down and his third down efforts. His overall passer rating of 79.5 is almost identical to his 79.6 mark on third downs, a number that ranks in the middle of the NFC pack. However, a closer look at the numbers shows what King can do. His yards per pass attempt on third down is 8.68.
Is that a good number? You bet. In the non-Kurt Warner land of statistical sanity, King's mark in that category trails only one other NFL quarterback, Minnesota's Daunte Culpepper (8.76). It is significantly better than most of the league's hurlers and it's an indication that King is getting the ball downfield when it matters.
An example? A first-quarter drive in Minnesota that had reached midfield but was in danger of fizzling out at third-and-17 was kept alive when King found WR Keyshawn Johnson for a 27-yard gain. The Bucs went on to score a game-tying touchdown when King ran the ball in himself, but not before he completed another 11-yard pass to WR Jacquez Green on third-and-11.
And, simply put, King is capable of moving the offense. Tampa Bay gave him an opportunity to do so in Minnesota by running more than half of the plays in a three-receiver set. Though the Bucs were losing 17-10 at halftime, that was mostly due to turnover issues…they had punted just once in the first 30 minutes. In a close game in the second half, Steckel sent down word that the Bucs were going to pull in the reins and pound the Vikings with their power rushing attack.
The players on the field protested, wanting to stay in a spread offense and put the ball in King's hands. "The players liked what we were doing," said Steckel. King went on to throw 40 times and the Bucs didn't punt once in the second half. Though they had trouble putting the ball in the end zone, the Bucs did move the ball effectively, and Steckel was pleased in the work of his quarterback.
"Shaun King continues to progress," said Steckel. "You punt the ball one time, you're supposed to win."
That's the optimistic way of looking at it, and Steckel was feeling optimistic this week, despite the Bucs' three-game losing streak. The Bucs' offense is progressing, lumps and all, and Steckel is confident that it will reach its goal under King, perhaps sooner rather than later.
"By game eight, we should feel good about where we're at," said Steckel. "We know we've still got a ways to go, but once we hit it in full stride, it's going to be good."