New Quarterbacks Coach Jim Caldwell has a wealth of experience to share with Shaun King
Clyde Christensen said it himself. This offseason, the next seven months, are likely to be the most crucial days in the professional development of Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Shaun King.
If one considers this the first spring after a full season of work for King, the first offseason to fine-tune rather than relearn a new offense, then it is, according to Christensen, the time of greatest progress for most NFL signal-callers.
But it's not quite as simple as that. There is change all around King, if not to the same degree as last offseason, when he came off a dazzling seven-start rookie debut but was forced to learn a brand new offense under Les Steckel.
This spring, King will have a new offensive coordinator again, but it will be his old quarterbacks coach, Christensen. He'll have a re-imagined offense under Christensen, but the same terminology and the same base structure of plays. He'll have a new quarterbacks coach in Jim Caldwell, but a man of such deep experience in QB-coach relations that it's hard not to see that as a plus.
How will it all add up for King in year three?
Very positively, Christensen believes. It may not be a stretch to believe that at times over the past year-and-a-half, running the Bucs' ball-control offense, King has chafed a bit at having his hands tied. He has accepted the role put before him, fell in line with the team's approach and compiled a 14-7 regular-season record as a starter, but one imagines he would enjoy taking a greater role in the Bucs' strategy to move the ball. Christensen thinks he'll get that opportunity.
"Somewhere in between what he perceives (as the status quo) and what he perceives as 'cutting him loose' is a good medium," said the Bucs' new play-caller. "We do want to be balanced, we do want to get him in the flow early. We gave him more of the game last year than we ever had with our quarterback before. There were more instances where the game was going to be on his shoulders. He did a great job at times and at times he struggled.
"I think he'll get better and better and, as that happens, we'll get more and more comfortable with some situational things. To take the ball out of Warrick Dunn's and Mike Alstott's hands you have to feel comfortable that you're going to be successful.
"We're not going to put in a Tulane offense and throw 60 passes a game, but somewhere in between we'll find a medium ground."
That is where Caldwell comes in. The man who hoped mold Kerry Collins at Penn State and who has 17 years of offensive coaching, eight years as a head coach, is King's new mentor. Christensen helped King parlay his brief but eye-opening rookie experience into decent first-year-starter numbers: 54.4% completion rate, 2,769 yards, 18 touchdowns, 13 interceptions, a 75.8 passer rating. Caldwell will try to shepherd him into the next level of effectiveness, and he'll do it without Christensen breathing down his neck.
"We'll talk a lot but I want him to do it his way," said Christensen of Caldwell's new task. "That's one of the hard things. You put some energy into the guy, and it's hard to pull back and say, 'He's your guy now. You take him and do it your way. Use your own style. I'll feed you as much information as I have so that you can deal with the situation, but then you take it and go. You're the quarterbacks coach.'
Before working with King as a technician, Caldwell first plans to get to know him as a person.
"First of all, you've got to find out who he is and what he's all about," said the former head man at Wake Forest (1993-2000). "You've got to get a good feel for that. I'm just at the beginning of that process. I couldn't tell you a whole lot about him at this point in time until I've had a chance to meet with him. He's been progressing in his career here and I'm looking forward to getting to know him and helping him."
The other two assistant coaches hired by Head Coach Tony Dungy last week, Joe Barry (linebackers) and Mike Tomlin (defensive backs), are relatively young men who are basically contemporaries with their new charges. Into the pivotal role of King's guide, however, Dungy placed a man with a wealth of experience and a certain gravity about him. King should have no problem putting stock in Caldwell's advice.
"(Caldwell has the experience of) not only being at Penn State, being under Coach Paterno and working with the quarterbacks there, but also developing a whole system at Wake Forest and putting it in," said Dungy. "I think he's done a lot with the passing game in the last five years. You look at some of the quarterbacks and receivers that have come out of Wake Forest and I think he's done a great job. I think he's got some great ideas and he's going to help us."
Added Christensen: "Every recommendation was exactly the same on him: extremely loyal, extremely hard-working, meticulous with details, excellent with his quarterbacks. He's a technician. I really think it's an advantage to have a guy that's been a head coach."
In effect, Caldwell has more to learn than King, as he has to absorb the Bucs' base system before he'll be able to help the young hurler learn Christensen's newly-applied nuances. With the shakeup of the coaching staff and the high hopes being placed on King's 2001 progress, Christensen believes his promotion from within and the resulting offensive stability was a crucial decision by Dungy for King's sake.
"I think it's very important," said Christiansen. "The built-in advantage is that we don't have to change everything completely. I think that retarded us last year because we had to use our offseason to learn terminology, to learn a new system. There were some areas that we improved last year, but there were also some areas that (having a new system) slowed us down because you had to go back and teach things. I do think it's going to be an advantage."
One area of improvement that Christiansen made an effort to point out may seem a bit surprising to Buccaneer onlookers. The Bucs actually had more success throwing the ball downfield last year than at any time in Dungy's five years as head coach. Tampa Bay hit 38 completions of 20 or more yards last season; their previous high in that category since 1996 was 33. Christiansen believes that the addition of franchise-caliber wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson had a lot to do with that, and envisions King and the Buccaneers making even greater use of that weapon in 2001.
Christensen was brimming with confidence when he discussed these facets of Tampa Bay's offense-to-be, and now is certainly a time for optimism. If Christensen can successfully tinker with the Bucs' offense and master the new role of play-calling, and if King can tap into Caldwell's years of experience, this offseason could indeed be the quantum leap for the Bucs' quarterback that all envision. The next seven months will tell.