QB Shaun King picked just the right moments to make himself heard late in Monday night's game
By Vic Carucci, NFL Insider for NFL.com
Shaun King isn't big on analyzing his performance on a football field. He just performs. Nor is he big on taking people through his thought process after making a spectacular play. He just lets it speak for itself.
King, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' second-year quarterback, is at his very best when operating more on impulse and instinct rather than something out of a textbook.
And, finally, Monday night, the Buccaneers' coaches turned King loose. They allowed him to do a lot of things that weren't necessarily in the high-percentage category. They gave him room to take chances, to ad-lib, to do whatever came naturally.
And that, ultimately, was one of the big reasons King led the Buccaneers to their dramatic, 38-35 victory over the St. Louis Rams in Raymond James Stadium.
On this night, King not only threw two touchdown passes, but he also had two huge runs and a big throw that kept alive the drive that culminated in Warrick Dunn's winning 1-yard touchdown drive with 48 seconds left.
King was everything that many critics doubted he could be since the start of the season - and especially during the Buccaneers' four-game losing streak early in the year: a poised, multi-dimensional, playmaking force who could respond to intense pressure.
The pressure couldn't have been much heavier than it was Monday night, in the glare of the national spotlight, in the closest a regular-season game comes to a playoff contest. And King came through in the clutch.
What sort of statement did his performance make?
"It shows us, it shows everybody, he's just a gamer," Buccaneers cornerback Ronde Barber said. "When the pressure's on him, he wants it on his shoulders."
"Whenever you've got your quarterback out there making plays like he did tonight, it's really going to bode well for his confidence and the confidence of our whole offense, because he's the leader," said Pro Bowl defensive tackle Warren Sapp. "If he's breeding confidence out of himself, everybody else is going to breed confidence."
The defining moment of King's performance came after the Rams took a 35-31 lead with 5:18 left to play. The Buccaneers went four downs and out, then the Rams went three-and-out, and with 2:22 remaining, Tampa Bay had its final chance to pull out a victory.
Not just any victory, but the chance to secure a spot in the playoffs, and avenge their loss to the Rams in the 1999 NFC Championship Game while putting St. Louis in real jeopardy of not being able to defend its Super Bowl crown.
On second-and-10 from the Tampa Bay 35, King threw a swing pass to Dunn. Defensive end Kevin Carter wrapped up Dunn and was about to make the tackle when King shouted for the running back's attention. Dunn knew exactly what King wanted, and he delivered a lateral back to the quarterback. King proceeded to run 15 yards, and was hit out of bounds by linebacker Mike Jones, tacking 15 more yards to the play.
"I just told him to pitch it," King said. "I was fortunate enough the guys continued blocking throughout, and I was able to find a little seam to get upfield."
King's first thought when he caught the lateral was to attempt a pass downfield. But he wasn't sure if that would result in a penalty - which it would have because King had begun the play with the pass to Dunn - so he decided to run.
"I had a couple of plays like that before, back when we were in the yard (of his home as a child)," King said.
Four plays later, on fourth-and-4 from the St. Louis 29, King, with no one open, darted six more yards to give the Bucs another first down. Two plays after that, he threw a 22-yard pass to Reidel Anthony that set up Dunn's winning score.
"I never lost confidence that we'd take it down and that we'd score," King said. "I thought, 'this is the same situation as last year (in losing to the Rams in the NFC title game).' We had the ball with the chance to win it. Let's go out and do it. We matured from last year. We're a better team, and we made the plays this year."
"Shaun … people have been dogging him for weeks and weeks," Dunn said. "But I thought he played his best football game tonight. He was throwing the football well. He was pulling the ball down, running well when we had the opportunities to run. He was just playing an exceptional football game."
And showing exceptional cool and calm.
"One of his best attributes is his presence," Bucs safety John Lynch said of King. "It's unbelievable for a young guy to seemingly be unfazed by all of the pressure."
Nor was King fazed by the fact the Buccaneers, widely viewed before the season as a favorite to play in the Super Bowl that will played here, were 3-4 at one point this season. Nor was he fazed by the fact he, in particular, and the Buccaneers' offense, in general, were pegged as the main reasons the team with one of the NFL's strongest defenses was falling short of lofty expectations.
"We've kept faith in ourselves," King said. "We haven't lost belief. When we were 3-4, we thought, if we started playing the way we were capable of, we'd be in this situation."
King didn't have much to say on whether his performance or the Bucs' victory made any sort of statement.
"We just wanted to win," he said. "We came out and beat a team a lot of people didn't think we could beat."
King's teammates, however, found it easy to identify and share the deeper meaning in what he and the rest of Tampa Bay's offense accomplished Monday night.
"For a long time, our offense hasn't had much credit," Sapp said. "(Critics said), 'We can't move the ball … we can't throw it. We don't do anything but three yards and a cloud of dust.' But when Warrick got wrapped up and he threw that ball back to Shaun, and Shaun had the presence of mind to do what he did, that just shows what kind of playmakers we have."