Every division-leading team in the NFL this season has had only one starting quarterback--except Tampa Bay. The Buccaneers have had three: the long-suffering Trent Dilfer, the not-as-long-suffering Eric Zeier and the miracle-of-the-moment Shaun King.
That's Shaun King. From Tulane.
Not a "football factory," like Nebraska or Ohio State or Florida; rather, Tulane is known as a "party school." (Heck, when The Man was in college--actually, I didn't go to college, I went to the University of Maryland--we would drive down to Tulane on weekends just for the frat mixers.)
Tampa Bay, winner of six straight games and without a division title since 1981, sits improbably atop the powerful NFC Central. Only five teams in the league have scored fewer points than the Buccaneers. This has been largely because of the ineffectiveness of Dilfer, now out with a broken collarbone, and offensive coordinator Mike Shula.
As a play-caller, Shula makes Jim Fassel look like Cirque du Soleil. Shula favors two play-calling sequences: run-run-run and run-run-sack. Thus, it was stunning to see Tampa Bay call 42 passes in 59 plays last week against Detroit; maybe Shula dozed off with his finger stuck on the third-and-long button.
Aside from its stout defense, the Buccaneers have been energized by two unlikely rookie sources--the 5-foot-11 King (92.2 quarterback rating) and the 5-8 Martin Gramatica (22 of 26 on field goal attempts). Have you seen this Gramatica? Every time he makes a kick, it's like Ed McMahon and Dick Clark just knocked on his door with that oversized check.
With the Buccaneers coached by the gracious Tony Dungy, it has become very, very hard not to root for Tampa Bay.
Unfortunately, Tampa Bay visits Oakland this weekend. Raiders fans are very, very mean--even the empty seats at Network Associates Coliseum have a nasty look to them--plus the Raiders tend to lose games they should win and win games they should lose. I will be forced to take the Raiders as 1 1/2-point underdogs.
(Sporting Note: There's an effort to launch a women's professional football league by next year. My Wife Of The Moment, Rhonda, somewhat supportive, remarked, "Now you'll be able to pick games wrong in two genders.")
As always, the following point-spread picks should not be used as the basis for any actual cash wager:
Jets at Cowboys (-6): Bill Belichick is supposedly Jets' "coach in waiting." But if you buy the team, I've got to believe Belichick immediately becomes the Jets' "coach who will wait until Hell freezes over." . . . Jets hired specialist to help K John Hall strap on his helmet correctly. Pick: Jets.
Giants at Rams (-11): Fassel now uses play chart as a floor mat in his AMC Pacer. . . . Smartly, Fassel also had extra pockets sewn into his team jacket the other day. . . . Now, as 7-6 teams go, these Giants don't look so bad. Pick: Rams.
Redskins at Colts (-7): One team is en route to galloping ingloriously to Super Bowl XXXIV, the other team is owned by a man who buys pink slips at Costco. Hmm. Which team do you think I'm rooting for? Pick: Colts.
Packers at Vikings (-5): If Ray Rhodes is having this kind of trouble with clock management, Y2K's going to be more than he can handle. . . . Brett Favre's an underdog vs. Jeff George? Honey, get me the milk money! Pick: Packers.
Falcons at Titans (-10): These days, Dan Reeves looks like a fellow trying to make a figure-eight with an Etch-a-Sketch. . . . I hate to nit-pick, but I think the Titans have the sloppiest huddle in the league. Pick: Falcons.
Chargers at Dolphins (-8): Once a year, The Man provides the exact final score of a game beforehand, free of charge. Here it is: Chargers 19, Dolphins 16. Wow. Pick: Chargers.
Steelers at Chiefs (-8 1/2): Steelers have lost at home to Browns, Bengals and Ravens, which would be like Rand McNally losing his way on Interstates 71, 75 and 95. Pick: Steelers.
49ers at Panthers (-8): In a nifty bit of double dealing, Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) has managed to turn over control of the 49ers to Panama in lieu of the canal. Pick: 49ers.
Jaguars (-14) at Browns: I wonder if Jaguars' Tony Boselli buys his jerseys by the inch. . . . Browns' new game plan: short passes, long alibis. Pick: Browns.
Bills (-3) at Cardinals: If Bills K Steve Christie's not careful, there soon could be a vacancy at Scott Norwood's condo complex. Pick: Bills.
Saints at Ravens (-8 1/2): While in Baltimore, Mike Ditka will try to get a Maryland judge to give him the same immunity that was granted Linda Tripp. Pick: Saints.
Seahawks at Broncos (-2): Seahawks' two-minute offense bogged down last week with appearance of ventriloquist in huddle. Pick: Broncos.
Lions (-3 1/2) at Bears: If Lions are truly better without Barry Sanders, then lemon meringue pie is truly better without meringue. Pick: Bears.
Patriots (-3) at Eagles: Eagles in midst of mandatory five-day waiting period before installing shotgun offense. Pick: Patriots.
Last week: 6-8.
Season record: 88-101-10.