And a rookie shall lead them
Gary Shelton, The St.Petersburg Times, published 29 November 1999

Confident Shaun King knows his role: "All I have to do is play smart, and good things will happen." There were times you could tell he was a rookie. There were moments when Shaun King acted his age. In the huddle, for instance, where his teammates were aghast at the sight of him calling a play.

No, it wasn't because of King's youth. It was because, in his eagerness to call a play, the kid was tipping off the snap count. He would call a play, and he would signal the count with his fingers. If it was on two, he would flash two fingers as he spoke. If it was on one, he would flash one. "For goodness' sake, don't tell them the snap count," guard Frank Middleton roared. And King, the key to whatever is left of a season, could only grin at his mistake.

There were times you could tell the coltish quality of King's career. There were times you wondered how much tougher things had become for an offense that can barely move as it is. In the locker room, for instance, where you found King's locker as an afterthought. Actually, King's half- locker. Everyone else had a locker, but King was packed in with Martin Gramatica. Things are cramped enough without having the future dress in a duplex. There were times his teammates had to tell him to speak up, because things tend to get a bit louder in a game than in practice.

There was the play where he held on to the ball too long before throwing it to Jacquez Green. There were the 12 plays it took for him to collect his first completion. You can look at such things today and wonder about the plight of the Bucs, who find themselves trapped between a rook and a rib cage. Conventional wisdom suggests that rookies are not to be trusted, so you can wonder how far a first-year player can take a team.

You can look at King's line, 3 of 7 passes for 32 yards, and wonder how much better he can be, and how fast. Or you can look into his eyes, and you can notice they do not blink. Can this team go to the playoffs behind Shaun King, a 22- year-old rookie? "Yes, it can," he tells you. "No doubt about it."

This is the first thing you need to know about King, maybe the most important thing. He believes. In the Bible, in the playbook, in himself. He believes he can keep the Bucs on track, and that they will not have to slow down to help him along. He believes that, eventually, you will believe, too. The kid is confident enough, and he is composed enough. Whether he is good enough, we will find out. Whether he is ripe enough, we will find out. But the idea of holding the season in his hands doesn't scare him, which is at least a pretty fair place to start.

This is the state of the Bucs. They are riding a four-game winning streak, and still, you have to wonder if they can go anywhere at all. Trent Dilfer, the new, improved Dilfer, broke a clavicle Sunday, and his season is done. Which leaves the Bucs trying to believe in the kid who believes so strongly in himself. "We have so many great players here," he says softly. "All I have to do is play smart, and good things will happen."

Consider the situation King found himself in Sunday afternoon. His team was on the road, an underdog, clinging to a 6-3 lead in the Kingdome. The offense was playing awful, and the field position was so bad the game had turned into a half-court affair. King's first pass was dropped by Reidel Anthony, an equal-opportunity annoyer. You might have expected a rookie to be terrified. King? He acted like the place was named for him. No nerves, no butterflies, no problem.

Oh, it took a while. This is, after all, the Bucs offense. He didn't pick up a first down in his first four series. But on his fifth, he guided the Bucs into the end zone. It wasn't enough to make you call Canton for reservations, but it was a glimpse at why the Bucs think there is something special about King. He was the sixth quarterback taken this year, and he will still tell you he expects to be better than them all.

Oh, King notices when the others play, Tim Couch and Donovan McNabb, Akili Smith, Daunte Culpepper and Cade McNown. He notices their statistics. But he notices how often those guys lose, too. "I wouldn't swap places with any of them," he said. "They have more money, but that doesn't last."

The better question is how long the Bucs will last under King. Coach Tony Dungy says he's leaning toward starting King Dec. 6, and the hunch is he'll stick with that. Eric Zeier is expected to resume practice this week. But it has been weeks since Zeier held a ball, and even then, Zeier didn't exactly make scoreboards explode. Which means you probably will see King in a Monday night game, for first place, against the Vikings.

Hardly a game you want to trust to a player with three career completions. King grinned. "It's the same game you played as a kid in the street," he said, shrugging. "Only the scoreboards are bigger."

This is one of the things you will like about King. He has a marvelous way of draining the complexity from the game. Someone asked him how he dealt with the noise in the Kingdome. "I talked louder," he said. Someone else asked if tight end Patrick Hape was his third read. "He was somewhere in there," King said. "He was a guy who wasn't covered."

Can the Bucs win with him? Maybe. The Bucs, after all, are a run- oriented, play-action pass team. It isn't as if they need 300 yards passing. It isn't as if the defense needs a lot of points. For the Bucs, it is time to find out just what they have in the kid. It is time to find out if it really was a passing of the torch when Dilfer came through the interview room, glanced at King and grinned. "I thought you'd have more people asking you questions," Dilfer said. Next week, maybe he will.