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Testing a King's patience

Bucs backup QB Shaun King sat on the bench all season. Tonight he gets his chance.

By RICK STROUD, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 6, 2002


TAMPA -- This is how the season was supposed to end for Shaun King.

TAMPA -- This is how the season was supposed to end for Shaun King.

It is January and the Bucs are playing the Eagles in an apparent rematch of last season's NFC wild-card game.

Except instead of giving the ball and their playoff fortunes to King, he is handed a mop.

Except instead of a pressure-packed postseason, he gets to knock the rust off in a game so meaningless, the starters might be pulled before the end of the national anthem.

Except instead of throwing to Keyshawn Johnson, his favorite target is Milton Wynn.

Just Wynn, baby.

For King, a homegrown quarterback who led the Bucs in his first two seasons to 14 wins and an appearance in the NFC Championship Game, 2001 has been humbling to say the least.

He never planned on the Bucs acquiring Brad Johnson, never planned on losing his job in training camp to the free agent and never planned on Johnson leading the NFL in passing attempts and being sacked without ever having to come out of a game.

"When you go from that position to a backup role, that's relatively traumatic in basic terms," general manager Rich McKay said. "Initially, it was tough on him because he didn't see it coming. He had played pretty well. We were happy with Shaun. It's just that the fit for Brad was so good, we decided to pursue it. He was probably a little upset, if you will. And I think the one thing he did was work his way through it."

Not that his shoulder pads are without chips.

While King's work ethic and attitude have been, by all accounts, exemplary, he harbors some bitterness over the demotion. King repeatedly declined requests by the Times to be interviewed for this story. And the circle of teammates who supported him has grown smaller.

"I think he was certainly hurt early, which is natural," offensive coordinator Clyde Christensen said. "And I think he was challenged. And he's been exceptional through the whole thing. I think he's gotten better. I really do. I think he got better this offseason. I think he came in sharper and I really do think he's improved. He's worked extremely well with Brad. They get along. He's made us better.

"He's been very helpful on the sideline. He's been into the game. Very sharp. He's had some great ideas during the game. I think our relationship has been a positive for me. He's a familiar guy to me on the sideline to be able to talk with and get a pulse from, even more than when he was playing."

A year ago, King screamed at Christensen, then the quarterbacks coach, "Just let me play!" in a game at Miami.

But King has appeared in two of 15 games this season, completing 2 of 3 passes for 62 yards, including a 42-yarder for a 109.7 passer rating.

Two weeks ago, he enjoyed his season highlight by rushing for a two-point conversion in the 48-21 rout of New Orleans, a play only made possible by the injury to kicker Martin Gramatica.

Before free agency and the salary cap forced teams to throw young quarterbacks into the fire, players like Johnson benefited some from years on the bench.

How much sitting will help King is uncertain, but Christensen believes it can.

"I think you can get better by not playing," Christensen said. "I don't know how long you can. But you certainly can and I think especially for him, to have played and then to sit, I think he'll pull some things out of this year he may not appreciate until 10 years from now. But he may look back and say that year (on the bench) helped me in this area. I think again, there's nothing like playing. So there's no substitute. But it gives him a chance to sit back and evaluate what took place."

Not that King ever considered putting his head in an oven.

On the contrary, the 6-foot, 225-pound 24-year-old reported to training camp in shape, played well in the preseason and has maintained that preparation throughout the season.

"If you look at the offseason participation chart, if you look at his weight, if you look at his arm strength and what he did this offseason, they're very good," McKay said. "I think if you watch him in practice, he's been sharp. He has not come out in practice and taken this as the redshirt year. And that is important.

"To me, Shaun has a chance to play in this league for 15, 18 years. Guys do that at that position, shockingly. So don't treat one year or two years (on the bench) as the end of the world. Use it as a benefit, something you can grow from."

Finally, after weeks in waiting, King gets to take command of the huddle, throw the ball downfield and try to win a game against the Eagles and quarterback Donovan McNabb, one of his best friends.

"Shaun's a competitor," McNabb said. "He knows the situation. I think the only thing you can do when you're in the situation he's in is just be patient and continue to prepare as if you're the starter because you never know what may happen.

"And just talking to him, he's very confident in Brad and he's just enjoying what they're doing as a unit."

Johnson said what King has to guard against is trying too hard to make plays after sitting on the bench for 15 weeks.

"Like anybody, he has to go out there and prepare and relax and have fun but don't try to make up for an entire season in one quarter," Johnson said. "You have to let the game come to you. He's practiced well and prepared well all season long so I'm sure he'll play well."

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