QB Shaun King found the correct target almost every time on Sunday
Three weeks into the 2000 season have made this fact clear: if the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have a weak link, it's not second-year quarterback Shaun King.
It is a simple fact that King, who had a total of five regular-season starts under his belt coming into the year, was considered the unknown factor by nervous fans and neutral pundits. Considering the team's obviously strong defense and its imported veteran talent on the offensive line and at wide receiver, it is hard to come down to hard on that line of thinking.
King, nothing if not calm, let all the worry wash over him and went about his business.
And, oh, business is good.
Through three games, King has a 94.6 passer rating, eighth-best in the league. He has not thrown an interception. He has made the big throws when his team has needed them. Contrary to being the team's Achilles Heel, King is, it must be said, as much responsible for the team's 3-0 start as any player.
"I always feel confidence in myself," said King. "I feel like I can go out and do whatever they ask me to do. I'm also realistic enough to know that there's a lot of stuff that I don't know because of my inexperience. If I just go out and try to execute the game plan, play smart and not turn the ball over, and when we get opportunities, make them, then I think we'll be fine."
Even if you're not yet sold on the young hurler, it must be encouraging to see King improve each week. King was solid in the team's season-opening win at New England and efficient in the followup victory over Chicago, but his performance in the hostile Pontiac Silverdome on Sunday was his best yet.
"Shaun did a great job," said Head Coach Tony Dungy. "Playing on the road, managing the noise, making all the checks and things, and then throwing to the right guy. Throwing the ball away when it wasn't there and realizing that we couldn't give them the momentum play. Don't hold the ball, don't take the sacks. He ran for a couple first downs, he generally went to the right guy. I just thought he managed the game very well."
Over the often deafening den inside the Lions' home, King consistently made the right decisions and consistently converted the big plays when needed. It's no coincidence that the Bucs set a season high by converting 63% of their third-down tries – most of them were on precision passes by King.
"I think if you look around the league, the better offenses are the ones that have higher third-down completion rates," said King after the game. "That's something we struggled on the first two games. We weren't where we wanted to be. I'm not sure where we were today, but we made some good ones."
Exhibit A. In the first quarter, with the Bucs' leading 7-3 but facing a third-and-seven at midfield, King took a deep drop, waited until the rush was in his face then flipped a long pass down the right sideline. Jacquez Green turned on the jets at the last second to zip past the Lions defender and catch the ball at the four for a 43-yard gain. The Bucs scored on the next play.
Exhibit B. In the second quarter, the Bucs were again facing a third-and-long near midfield. This time King looked right until the rush was almost upon him, then turned left and lofted what looked like a floater into the middle of the field. It's not likely King could see his intended target, 5-8 back Warrick Dunn, but the ball settled into Dunn's hands just as the speedy runner slipped into a free area deep downfield between two layers of the Lions' zone. Dunn picked up 38 yards to the Detroit 21 and the Bucs went on to score another touchdown from there.
Exhibit C. Heck, the Bucs' whole opening drive of the second half was one big third-down exhibit. King converted three of them in a row during a nine-and-a-half minute march, scrambling to convert a third-and-seven and getting the other two on quick slants to Keyshawn Johnson and Reidel Anthony.
All in all, Johnson converted six of the eight third downs he threw on.
"I think he's getting a little bit better," said Johnson, who was in King's sight more often on Sunday, catching eight passes for 84 yards. "Everybody is. It's a new offense. We're all excited about it. He's getting to know exactly what I can do, what I can't do. What Quez can do, what he can't do. What the running backs can do. Where to put the ball where people like it.
"He's taking control of the offense. It's his offense and he's running it. All I ever ask him to do is don't throw the interceptions, don't lose the football game for us. So far, as far as I'm concerned, he's 3-0."
King, predictably, spread the praise around for one of his finest days as a pro. "I thought our offensive line did a great job, first and foremost," he said. "(The Lions) have a great front seven, and they did a good job of giving me protection today. And I thought the receivers did a great job of getting open and Mike (Alstott) and Warrick (Dunn) were their normal selves."
The basic gist of King's statement is that the Bucs have a lot of weapons on offense, something that those same nervous fans have never doubted. What the team has been looking for is someone who can distribute the ball effectively to those weapons. It appears they may have found that someone.
"So far, so good," said King, refusing to be any more swept up in the hype than he was burdened by the doubts. "We've been able to play winning football these first three weeks. But we've got a lot of football left. We've still got 13 games left, and you don't win championships in December. We just take the approach that we have to improve each week, and if we do that I think we'll reach our goal."