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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Young at Heart

At the core of the NFC Central, offensively, is a trio of second-year quarterbacks, including the Bucs’ Shaun King


QB Shaun King is one of a trio of second-year field generals directing the action in the NFC Central

by Andrew Mason,

It seems like just yesterday Charlie Batch ascended to the starting quarterback slot with the Detroit Lions, the beneficiary of an in-season promotion following an 0-2 start in 1998.

It seems like just last week Brett Favre took over the starter's slot with the Green Bay Packers, replacing an injured Don Majkowski in the third game of the 1992 season.

Favre, a Super Bowl winner, has seen it all. Batch has seen most of it - the hard way after enduring thumb and knee injuries in the last nine months. But the other three quarterbacks in the NFC Central have collectively started 11 regular-season games - six of them by the Chicago Bears' Cade McNown.

Granted, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Shaun King has a trip to the NFC Championship on his résumé. But, McNown, King and the Minnesota Vikings' Duante Culpepper serve as the embodiment that this five-team grouping, so often referred to as the "Black and Blue Division," is now less defined by power and steadiness, and more by finesse and explosiveness.

It's King who probably has the greatest burden of the three. Not only does he have the burden of expectation on his shoulders, but he has to learn his second offensive scheme in as many years, as Mike Shula replaced Les Steckel as offensive coordinator. Three games into the preseason, the Bucs and King are still working out the kinks.

"You really haven't seen the guys show their athletic ability. Right now when we call a formation or play, they're still thinking, myself included," King said. "As we keep going, we can get better.

"This is a marathon race; this is 16 games, and we're going to be a lot better in game 11 or 12 than in game one." -Shaun King

"This is a marathon race; this is 16 games, and we're going to be a lot better in game 11 or 12 than in game one."

King will get help from a sizable target - wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson. McNown and Culpepper have receivers of equal renown, though – Marcus Robinson for the Bears and Cris Carter and Randy Moss for the Vikings.

McNown acknowledges that he feels more comfortable entering his second year in offensive coordinator Gary Crowton's unorthodox, but effective, scheme. However, what could be just as vital for his development are the strides he made in getting to know his teammates and, as a result, becoming a leader.

"It makes you a better leader, having been around and being able to pat guys on the back as well as point out things," McNown told The Chicago Tribune. "When I'm talking about mistakes, I don't want to seem like a negative presence. Having spent quality time with the guys, I don't feel like it comes off that way."

The intangible leadership skills should benefit McNown. But for the Vikings' Culpepper, they might not be quite as necessary - mainly because no NFL quarterback has ever been so physically imposing.

At 6-foot-4, he's not the tallest quarterback to step under center. But with 266 pounds of solid muscle on his frame, he's certainly the most linebacker-esque.

He used his size adroitly on the college level at the University of Central Florida, rushing for 1,020 yards and 24 touchdowns. But he was considered a "raw" talent, and when the Vikings chose to eschew veterans Randall Cunningham and Jeff George in the offseason, eyebrows were raised.

Such a move seemed questionable at best, audacious at worst. After all, he'd only seen one possession worth of action. But with a successful preseason that included a 311-yard, two-touchdown effort against the Arizona Cardinals, he appears to have answered most of the questions surrounding his readiness.

"I knew I could play," Culpepper said. "I feel I've got to prove something every day. Even if everybody is saying I'm the best quarterback, I still feel I've got to prove something. Especially every game. That's the way I look at it. I just want to be the best."

Just like the other young guns.

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