Defense is King
Rick Stroud, The St.Petersburg Times, published 29 November 1999

Just when the Bucs begin their playoff drive, they have to hand the keys to a kid who has never been behind the wheel. Trent Dilfer sustained what is likely a season-ending injury when he broke his right clavicle Sunday. He was replaced by rookie Shaun King, who tossed his first career touchdown pass to tight end Patrick Hape to help the Bucs to a 16-3 win over the Seahawks. Tampa Bay's fourth straight victory was provided by the Bucs defense, which intercepted quarterback Jon Kitna five times and forced him to lose a fumble.

The Bucs remained in a three-way tie for the NFC Central lead at 7-4 with Detroit and Minnesota. Tampa Bay hosts the Vikings next Monday night and plays the Lions on Dec. 12 at Raymond James Stadium.

King, 22, had never taken a snap in a regular-season NFL game prior to Sunday. But now the former Gibbs High standout will be asked to keep the Bucs' playoff hopes from crashing. "I think this is one of our best performances, to come up here and play an 8-2 ballclub in their house, a long way from home, pretty much everything going against us," defensive tackle Warren Sapp said. "Nobody thought we could get it done. But we did, and now we've got teams coming to us to play for a championship."

Dilfer broke his right clavicle on the second play of the third quarter when he was sacked by defensive end Phillip Daniels. Dilfer's right throwing shoulder was driven into the artificial turf of the Kingdome and he heard it snap. "I landed on it and heard it pop," said Dilfer, who was sacked four times. "It's a quarterback's nightmare."

The injury means Dilfer may have played his last game for the Bucs. Tampa Bay must decide whether to pick up the option on the final two years of his contract by paying him a $4-million bonus in March. Dilfer did not want to speculate about his future, but he was willing to stand on his record. "It's frustrating," Dilfer said. "We're 7- 4, we're tied for first place. I'm 7-3 as a starter. Ultimately, a quarterback is judged on wins and loses, so I feel like I've done my job. They'll have a decision to make. If it is, it is. I can't worry about that. It's out of my control."

Dungy indicated King likely will start against Minnesota. "It would be tough to go against a winning streak," said Dungy, who awarded King a game ball in a jubilant locker room. Eric Zeier, who has not played or practiced since sustaining separated rib cartilage in his only start Oct. 31 against Detroit, is expected to begin throwing again this week. General manager Rich McKay said the Bucs likely will sign Scott Milanovich as the No. 3 quarterback. Milanovich, who was coaching quarterbacks at Sickles High School in Tampa, played the past three seasons for the Bucs until he was claimed by Cleveland in the expansion draft. The Browns released him prior to training camp.

Dungy said the team would miss Dilfer, who responded from his benching by leading the Bucs to four straight victories. "It's tough. It's difficult," Dungy said. "When you lose your starting quarterback, you're going to take an emotional hit no matter what. But I've said all along, we have confidence in Eric and we have confidence in Shaun. Our team feels like we've got to continue to play hard no matter what the circumstances are. We feel badly for Trent. The best thing to do is to keep winning."

Whether they can do it behind King, the smooth-operating rookie, is uncertain. It's hard to imagine the offense operating any worse than it did Sunday for Dilfer. When King entered the game, the Bucs had gone eight quarters without a touchdown. They also had not had a first down since the first quarter. King started slowly, throwing four straight incompletions. He was sacked once. He deserved a better fate. Receiver Reidel Anthony, who dropped a touchdown pass from Dilfer in the second quarter, also butchered King's first attempt that would have been a first down.

On his fourth drive, King drove the Bucs 67 yards in eight plays, completing all three of his passes for a total of 32 yards. That included a 2-yard, play-action touchdown pass to tight end Patrick Hape that essentially put the game away with 12:21 remaining. "My objective when I got in there was not to do anything stupid," King said. "The defense was playing so well, and so were playing a field-position game."

Bucs players said they knew King would not be rattled. "Shaun is unbelievable," Dilfer said. "His greatest asset is his confidence. I think he just enjoys playing. He enjoys the opportunity when he is able to play. That's what I saw in his eyes."

The way the Bucs defense is playing, King might not have much to worry about. For the fourth time this season, Tampa Bay's defense allowed just a field goal. They sacked Kitna three times and were in his face more than a mouthpiece. Donnie Abraham, Derrick Brooks, Alshermond Singleton, Brian Kelly and Ronde Barber had interceptions. Brooks, Sapp and Anthony McFarland had sacks. Brooks and Sapp forced fumbles and Sapp recovered one.

Kitna entered the game as the AFC's second-leading passer with a quarterback rating of 90.8. He had thrown 16 touchdowns and six interceptions. But he nearly matched a year's worth of picks in one nightmarish game. Bucs safety John Lynch said the way the defense was playing, a three-point lead would have been enough. "If we'd only scored six points, they still would've been at three and we would've pulled it out," he said.

It's hard to argue. The Bucs keep beating the odds and opponents. They've won despite six turnovers, they've won when giving up seven sacks, they've won two games the offense failed to score a TD. Sunday, the Bucs beat a hot team with the second-best record in the AFC, on the road, on the West Coast, in a dome. "We defeated all those deals," defensive end Chidi Ahanotu said. "We won all our games in November. Right now, I think we're with the best teams in the league. I'm sure we're striking some fear in everybody's hearts."