It was still more than hour before kickoff Sunday, but Bucs quarterback Shaun King already had ball-hungry receiver Keyshawn Johnson chewing his ear.
King was enjoying a private chat with Lions quarterback Charlie Batch when Johnson interrupted like he does in most huddles involving his new quarterback.
"You know, he's out there talking to Charlie Batch before the game and I told him, 'C'mon, let's warm up, and if you keep talking to Charlie Batch, you won't get the $31-million he got because I'll break your arm,"' Johnson said. "They want to try to hurt him mentally before he even steps on the field by saying he can't, he can't, he can't. Because he's short and stuff like that I've always played with underdog quarterbacks. All I ever asked for him to do is don't throw the interception and don't lose the game for us."
King avoided that and did more. Much more.
The supposed weak link of the Bucs offense continued his chain of strong performances in Sunday's 31-10 win over the Lions at the Pontiac Silverdome.
King passed for 211 yards, ran for a touchdown and passed for another - to guard Randall McDaniel, no less. For the third straight game, he did not commit a turnover and kept the Bucs perfect for the season in the red zone.
The victory also exorcised another demon by beating Batch. The Bucs nemesis was sacked seven times and intercepted twice for his first defeat in four starts against Tampa Bay.
Johnson played a major role in King's success, eclipsing his season total with eight catches for 84 yards. More impressive, six resulted in first downs for the Bucs (3-0).
That performance helped set up a juicy revenge game for Johnson Sunday against the Jets (3-0) at Raymond James Stadium.
Johnson would not fire any salvos Sunday at his former team, but three news conferences are scheduled for him this week beginning today.
"You know, I haven't really even thought about it, to be honest with you," Johnson mused.
"I hinted to you a little bit last week but you guys didn't catch it. So, I told you that my time will come and eventually things will get better. Today, it got better. It got better as far as catches go. And I'd like to think you can always replace guys statistically, but you can't replace that magic that he brings. I think I bring a lot of magic and I'm excited for this offense and this team."
The Bucs' 31 points are their best total in a decade at the Silverdome, where they had left as losers in six of their past seven visits.
King's performance was efficient and encouraging. He stood tall in the pocket despite some vicious hits, was 6-for-8 passing on third down and protected the football like an heirloom. And King kept the Bucs perfect for the season in the red zone, leading them to scores on all five trips inside the Lions 20. "I can't say enough great things about him and I just said it afterwards to him personally in the locker room here," offensive coordinator Les Steckel said. "The thing I love about Shaun is he has bought into the program and he is thoroughly convinced if he throws no interceptions, we'll win every game."
That had been the formula Batch had followed before Sunday. But his mastery of the Bucs was no mystery. He had benefited from a strong running game, an early lead and was able to avoid turnovers. But led by defensive tackle Warren Sapp, who made three sacks Sunday, the Bucs defense held Detroit running back James Stewart to 13 yards on eight carries.
The Bucs' last four possessions of the first half ended touchdown, touchdown, punt and touchdown.
"This ballclub has been fighting for that killer instinct, and that's just another sign that we're coming along," Sapp said. "We've never had an identity on offense. Keyshawn has come along and Shaun recognizes that's his offense."
The Bucs led 21-3 and were looking for more after Al Singleton blocked a punt by John Jett and cornerback Ronde Barber recovered at the Detroit 30.
But in 16 seconds, the Bucs experienced a 10-point swing in the Lions' favor.
First, Martin Gramatica missed a 38-yard field-goal attempt wide left. The Lions took over and burned their last timeout with seven seconds remaining in the half after Batch completed a 22-yard pass to Johnnie Morton at midfield.
All that was left for the Bucs to do was swat away the impending pass and head to the locker room.
Batch complied by launching a pass toward the front corner of the end zone for which safety Damien Robinson was positioned. But instead of attacking the ball to intercept it, Robinson camped under it like the pass was an infield fly and receiver Germane Crowell stole it for a 50-yard touchdown.
"I was like, 'Yeah, this is a freebie,' and then out of nowhere, Crowell comes out and catches the ball. I think I relaxed a little bit," Robinson said. "I was tougher on myself than my teammates (were)."
"Damien knows as a defensive back you're taught when the ball is up, you've got to go attack and get it at its highest point," Bucs safety John Lynch said. "He thought no one was there and he was just going to get an easy pick. It's a good lesson for him and not something we wanted to have happen."
The play cut the Bucs' lead to 11 and gave Detroit a much needed lift for the second half.
But instead of dwelling on Robinson's blunder and leaving the door open, the Bucs slammed Detroit's fingers in it.
After the second-half kickoff, King methodically marched the Bucs 75 yards on a 19-play drive that took 9:31 off the clock. King was magnificent, converting three times on third down. He ran for a first down, completed a 38-yard pass to Johnson and an 11-yarder to Reidel Anthony.
Unbelievably, with first and goal at the Lions 6, the Bucs had the benefit of 10 plays, three of which were erased by penalty, but failed to score a touchdown.
McDaniel dropped what could've been his second touchdown reception. And after King threw an apparent touchdown to tight end Dave Moore on fourth and one, the play was erased because referee Gerry Austin said McDaniel failed to report as an eligible receiver as he had the previous several plays.
"I know I went over there. I came to the huddle late because I was reporting," McDaniel said. "But things like that happen and there's nothing I can do about it."
Gramatica made it 24-10 with his 24-yard field goal. And although the Lions still had time to come back, they didn't have much fight. The Lions' three fourth-quarter possessions resulted in two interceptions sandwiching a fumble.
If anyone still has questions about King, there's this advice from guard Frank Middleton:
"Just tell them to shut up. Shut up, enjoy the year and watch the young kid grow. He's stood in there, took some great hits and never backed down from anybody. If we can keep him standing straight up, it's going to be a great year."
Rick Stroud , The St.Petersburg Times 2000