Bucs, King still working to earn passing grades
Everything is fine. The scoreboard says so. That's the thing about victory. It pardons everyone. It heals wounds, it removes warts and it relieves worries. It offers absolution for every missed tackle, for every dropped pass, for every bad call. It erases bad memories, relieves hurt feelings and covers up blatant shortcomings. It is a get-out-of-jail free, and it leaves a team criticism-proof. Everything is fine. The parade marches on.

This is where we are with the Bucs. The team keeps moving forward, but the passing game keeps moving backward. So you celebrate. And you try not to notice the passing offense is so ugly it makes your eyes bleed to watch it. Why quibble? Why nit-pick? Why deny the Bucs' denial? Everything is fine. You can see the playoffs from here.

Except, at the risk of pooping a party, maybe everything isn't. The team is on a run. Two in a row, five out of six, once in a lifetime against the Cowboys. Whee and double whee. But even here, where a franchise hasn't won enough to complain about the ones it gets, the victories come with a warning on the label. The passing offense has to get better.

Now would be a good time. This is awful. This is straight out of high school and, frankly, not a very good high school. Fifteen passes. Nine completions. Sixty- five yards total, 51 net. Sheesh. And double sheesh. You hear numbers like that and you think of a game played in a snowstorm. Or a hurricane. Or a quicksand bog. Or, maybe, all three. You think of a team with awful wide receivers. You think of a team out of 1917. You think of the Cleveland Browns.

What you do not think of is a team readying a frontal attack on the playoffs. The worst part about the Bucs' lousy passing game this weekend is that it follows the Bucs' lousy passing game last weekend, not to mention the Bucs' lousy passing game the week before that. By now, this has become a common sight. Watch the Bucs throw, and as the game wears on, your face grows numb, as if you are riding a motorcycle in the cold. Keep watching, and you're going to need glasses.

In the past three games, Shaun King has averaged 87.3 yards, and he hasn't thrown a touchdown. It has been six games since he threw for as many as 165 yards. The last three games, however, are not the problem. The next three games are.

This is the passing game the Bucs have to take them into games against the Dolphins, who have a great defense, and the Rams, who have a great offense, and the Packers, who have a great big glacier in the middle of the field. It's a tough trio of hurdles standing between this team and the playoffs. It would be nice to think, perhaps, it could go over one of them. "We'll play a game where we have to throw the ball to win," King said. "And I'm confident we'll do it."

It would be nice to share King's confidence. But to the naked eye - and it would be better to watch this team through the reflection of smoked glass - it's hard. It seems the passing game gets worse every game, every series, every dropback. Give King credit for this much. He spent most of Sunday afternoon in discomfort. He felt a tweak in his groin as he was warming up, and it tightened painfully. Much of his time on the sideline was spent stretching, throwing, anything to keep it loose. "I couldn't move," King said.

It was bad enough that quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen said he considered pulling King, for physical reasons, in the first quarter, but he didn't. Of course not. Around the Bucs, quarterbacks never get pulled. It's the enteral question. How bad does a quarterback have to play before he's invited to sit and watch? "You aren't going to get the big numbers when you don't throw any more than we do," King said. And he's right. No one should expect 250 or 300 yards. But, say, 165 seems nice. Efficient seems nice.

This was the time of year the offense was supposed to be jelling. It is December, 13 games are behind it. By now, the team was supposed to discover the secret codes in the playbook, and the lights were supposed to go on, and this team was supposed to wear the extra- point team slap out. Instead, this.

You could call King a deer in the headlights, except for this: Eventually, a deer in the headlights goes airborne. In a way, King has been in a bit of a funk since the Chicago game, when the Bears let him have all day in the pocket but crowded the secondary like shoppers at a holiday sale. He wasn't as bad as the numbers say against Buffalo - which did a good job draping the Bucs receivers - but he missed some receivers early. Once more, he looked gunshy.

This isn't just King's fault. The Bucs preach caution loudly, so much that it can make a quarterback tighten up. If you are too afraid of a mistake, odds are you aren't going to make anything good happen, either. That happened with Trent Dilfer, when the team admitted there was a low ceiling to him and asked him, pretty much, to stay out of the way. Now, it seems to be happening with King, too.

It cannot. Even when things are going well, the Bucs have to acknowledge that if this team is to survive the gantlet ahead, it cannot run from here to there. If this team is going to continue to make a move, occasionally, it needs to go by air. Either that, or the next thing passing by will be the season.

Gary Shelton , The St.Petersburg Times 2000