Last fall, when quarterback Shaun King was leading Tulane to its first undefeated season since 1931, a reporter from his hometown newspaper in nearby St. Petersburg, Fla., asked him what he planned to do if he didn't make it in pro football. King said he wanted to work for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the marketing department.
No longer is that an option. The team's marketing department is no doubt working on the local-prodigy-makes-good angle after King's poised performance Monday night in the Buccaneers' 24-17 victory over the Minnesota Vikings.
With a record sellout crowd and a national television audience watching his first NFL start, the unflappable rookie threw two second-half touchdown passes to erase a four-point halftime deficit and help push the 8-4 Buccaneers into a tie for first place in the NFC Central with the Detroit Lions. He'll start again here Sunday against the Lions, and the Buccaneers very well may have found their quarterback for the future.
"I feel like I've taken a step to where I want to get," King said Monday. "There were a couple of plays I didn't make. I didn't hit guys in the numbers, but I'm probably my toughest critic. I just know I want to be a great quarterback.
"I did what I had to do. I was very excited out there, but I had a great time. I wasn't nervous when the game started, and I just tried to concentrate on doing my job. I'm just real happy for a lot of people in Tampa Bay. I wanted to show them I appreciate their support and everything they do to make me feel comfortable as their quarterback."
The same could not be said of the fans' feelings for the man King replaced. Trent Dilfer, the team's first-round pick in the 1994 draft and the starter since 1995, is out for the season with a broken collarbone suffered Nov. 28 at Seattle. Backup Eric Zeier has a rib injury that has forced him out of the past five games, though he will be available against the Lions.
Dilfer had been benched once this season for the sort of erratic play that has characterized his professional career. And when he publicly criticized the team's conservative offensive philosophy and play-calling before the Seahawks game, he further alienated teammates and coaches. Dilfer becomes a free agent this year, and the Buccaneers simply may have had enough and allow him to go elsewhere, especially if King continues his current course.
Local football followers are not surprised by King's performance the past two weeks. He threw 60 touchdown passes his junior and senior years at St. Petersburg's Gibbs High School, then went to Tulane because he said he liked the challenge of leading a school with a strong academic tradition back into prominence. Left unsaid was that recruiters from Florida State and Florida, where he really wanted to go, told him he was too small--6 feet, 225 pounds--to play the position.
By the time King left Tulane in 1998 (with a degree in marketing, of course), he had broken the NCAA's all-time passing efficiency record and held nearly every school throwing mark. He also ran for 532 yards his senior season, becoming the first player in NCAA history to throw for more than 3,000 yards and rush for more than 500 yards in the same season.
Five quarterbacks were drafted ahead of him, all in the first round. There were still some concerns among pro personnel men about his size and arm strength, and he fell to the second round, where he was the 50th overall pick. He also was the first quarterback drafted during Tampa Bay Coach Tony Dungy's four-year tenure, and the Buccaneers became sold on his talent when they spent a week watching him at the Senior Bowl last January.
"He was a very impressive guy, just the way he carried himself," Dungy said. "I wasn't that familiar with him, but he really impressed all of us. He carried himself the same way in the preseason. He only played in the fourth quarter, but he was getting the job done. I don't think he's even scratched the surface, but he's got unlimited potential. He doesn't get too excited. Before games he's pretty low key. He always seems to be in control out there and has a grasp of what he's doing."
In every game he played during the preseason, he led one long touchdown drive, including one against the Redskins. He completed a winning march with a perfect fade pass to fellow rookie Darnell McDonald on the last play to ensure an undefeated preseason.
"I always look back to the preseason game against Washington," said Tampa Bay defensive tackle Warren Sapp. "I remember how chaotic that two-minute drive was. Everything that could possibly happen happened--replays, penalties, all kind of stuff. I remember walking up to the sidelines and looking out there to see how the kid reacted.
"It was his first big-time pressure situation because it was pressure on him. But the kid was just standing out there like, 'Just call the next play, and I can get it done.' I remember telling Steve White, 'Damn, he looks calm as hell out there.' Because you expect him to be a little jittery."
One might have expected the same in the cauldron of a Monday night game with first place on the line. But Buccaneers coaches used a modest game plan revolving around the bruising runs of 260-pound Mike Alstott (95 yards on 23 carries) and a mostly short, safe passing attack, the better to ease the burden on King to make big plays downfield.
King threw only 19 times, completing 11 for 93 yards, with one interception on a sideline throw into double coverage. His longest completion was a gorgeous 29-yard touchdown pass to Jacquez Green running down the middle of the field. Green caught the ball in full stride with a defender draped on his back for a score that put his team ahead for good at 17-14 midway through the third quarter.
But seven of King's completions gained seven yards or less, including a one-yard scoring throw to tight end Dave Moore off a lovely play-action fake by King to Alstott for the Bucs' final touchdown early in the fourth quarter. Most of his eight incomplete passes also came on short patterns or dump-offs to backs.
"We attacked them based on their defense," Dungy insisted. "We game-planned for Minnesota, and not necessarily who the quarterback would be. We wanted to take a couple of shots [with deep passes]. Shaun can throw the ball upfield, and we've got guys who can go deep. We'll do it more often as we go along.
"We're not a team that will go out and throw 45-50 passes anyway. You hope you don't get behind and have to throw like that. Shaun has just got to go out and play. . . . He controlled the game, which is what you have to do at the position, and that's not easy as a rookie. He made a few mistakes, but he played well and gave his team confidence, and that's a big thing. He recognized everything."
The Buccaneers still rely on their often dominant defense, rated third in the league, to win. Dungy's philosophy essentially revolves around getting a lead any way possible, then letting his defense protect it. With a rookie quarterback now in charge, that won't change much.
Still, King believes he's got the right stuff to take the Buccaneers, the team he has rooted for all his life, to wonderful places this season. He's also not the least bit shy in saying so.
"I have confidence that if I continue to work and not do anything to make us lose, it won't take a whole lot to win ballgames," he said. "I think I can take them real far."