Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Young Guns

Second-year QB Shaun King leads the NFC’s youngest team into a showdown with the Chicago Bears

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Second-year QB Shaun King knows he doesn't have to make everything throw in the book yet...though he believes he can

The National Football League put out its annual 'roster breakdown' this week, passing on such facts as who the biggest player in the league is (Detroit's Aaron Gibson), which teams are the most experienced (Washington and Denver) and which pros have toiled for the most teams (Tom Myslinski and Andre Rison).

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are a little shorter than the NFC average (6-1.4 to 6-1.9) and almost right on the conference's average weight. What's interesting is where the team stands on the age and experience charts. While the Bucs actually have the fewest number of rookies on any 53-man roster (seven), they are still tied with Philadelphia and Green Bay for the youngest groups in the NFC (each team has an average age of 25.9 years).

What that means is that the Bucs have many young players in their primes, a team core made up of such still-rising stars as Donnie Abraham, Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks, Mike Alstott and Warrick Dunn.

The perfect emblem of that roster makeup is QB Shaun King, a starter who is in just his second NFL year. Tampa Bay's aggressive defense is far from an aging bunch, but key players like Sapp and Brooks do have quite a bit more starting experience than the man leading the Bucs' offense. King's opening-day start last Sunday in New England was just his eighth as a pro, his sixth if you confine it to the regular season.

And yet he fits right in with the Bucs' seasoned and confident squad, perhaps because he has shown almost no nervousness since taking over as the starter last December. Poised beyond his years, King is one of six quarterbacks taken among the first 50 picks in the 1999 draft. All six are now starters and, while an NFL.com article recently anointed the Vikings' Duante Culpepper as the one in that half-dozen who is ticketed for stardom, King has given the Bucs and their fans every reason to think they've found a gem.

King was outstanding when pressed into duty late last fall, leading the Bucs to four wins in their last five games and becoming the first rookie in 23 years to lead his team to a playoff victory. His fine 82.4 passer rating in 1999 indicates that he was never overwhelmed by the step up to the pro level, but it's clear to him now that things were tougher as a rookie.

"Stuff is slower than last year," said King on Friday. "It's still fast, but I recognize a lot more."

Offensive Coordinator Les Steckel, who imported a new, more diverse offense into Tampa this offseason, has said repeatedly that King's rapid comprehension of the system has been his most pleasant surprise. King has remained wide open to the fact that there is much he doesn't yet know.

"I'm so young," he said. "I'm not in denial that I have a lot of things to learn and improve on – accuracy, timing, understanding of defenses, understanding of our offense, leading the team, being a leader on and off the field – but I think I'm learning those things."

What has helped King immeasurably is that talented, young core that should make the Bucs playoff contenders for years to come. Steckel is committed to spreading the ball around to the Bucs' wealth of skill-position talent, meaning King feels no shame in checking off a throw that is covered downfield and dumping it into the hands of a Dunn or Alstott. Meanwhile, the team's often impenetrable defense gives him confidence to take calculated chances.

There are, however, not a lot of chances the Bucs need him to take just yet. The Bucs' intermediate and deep passing game feeds off the play-action after the running game has been established, and it is designed to limit turnovers. King is confident in his arm but doesn't feel the need to show it off.

"I know I can make all of the throws, but I don't have to prove it," he said. "I just have to do what is necessary to help the team win. I'll get my chance to go out there and throw the ball around. Right now, I just need to be fundamentally sound."

He did that extremely well in the team's home opener in New England; in fact, Head Coach Tony Dungy was heard to say his favorite stat on the game's final play-by-play was King's zero interceptions. King was also sacked just once, and both of those stats were outstanding considering the constantly shifting defensive schemes the Patriots threw at him.

Now comes Chicago, which mixes up the defense less than the Patriots but can get quite a push up the middle behind DTs Jim Flanigan and Mike Wells. "They're a little different," said King. "It's not as confusing, but they play real hard. Their two guys in the middle are very good."

Dungy sees a Chicago defense on a quick rebound from last year's 29th-place NFL ranking. He doesn't have to tell his young quarterback to take the Bears seriously.

"Two things stick out at me after playing this game for a year," said King. "One is how important every play in a game is. Sometimes after a game on the bus, I think back to a play in the first quarter and think, 'If only we had…'. And two is how good everyone is at this level. You look at our schedule, we've got a dogfight every week."

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