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McCardell is a quick study as understudy

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[Times photo: Jim Damaske]
The Bucs expect Keenan McCardell to complement Keyshawn Johnson at wide receiver, a lonely position the past two years.

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By GARY SHELTON, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published August 16, 2002


And so Kato said to Tonto, who repeated it to Pancho: What do you think of this Keenan McCardell?

A little later, Watson said it to Artemus Gordon, who said it to Barney Rubble: The guy slides across a secondary pretty quickly, wouldn't you say?

Around lunchtime, Scully said it to Sancho Panza, who told Art Garfunkel, who told Boo-Boo, who told Gabrielle, who told Dick Cheney: So far, so good.

Yep, here at the National Sidekicks Social Hall, gathering place of little buddies and second bananas, McCardell has them buzzing.

Maybe, just maybe, the Bucs have found their Robin.

For years, playing wide receiver for the Bucs has been a lonely job. Most teams start two, sometimes three receivers, and they stream through the secondary at various angles and speeds.

The Bucs, on the other pair of hands, have started one receiver at a time, sometimes less. There have been times you wondered if the offensive coordinators were aware more than one man was eligible.

Well, lookie here.

From the look of things, the Bucs receiving corps is now being played in stereo.

Such is the early impression that McCardell has had on the Bucs. Finally, there is a duo capable of being dynamic. Finally, this team has a "two" in its 1-2 punch combination.

"Look at Starsky and Hutch," McCardell said. "It's just that Starsky's name came first. They were both getting shot at. They could both make arrests. Sometimes it was Starsky's turn, and sometimes it was Hutch's.

"It doesn't bother me who people think is No. 1 and who they think is No. 2. I think of myself as a No. 1. We have two ones."

It's early yet, and Bucs receivers have fizzled before. But so far, the Bucs couldn't be more pleased with McCardell, the receiver they pounced on when he was let go by the Jaguars, tonight's preseason opponent. Finally, the Bucs seem to have a complementary receiver whose job isn't to hand out compliments after Keyshawn Johnson makes another catch.

A second receiver? What a shame the Bucs didn't think of this earlier. Consider, last season, Keyshawn was 70 catches ahead of the Bucs' second wide receiver. Seventy. What this team needed was a Scottie Pippen. Pronto.

And so the Bucs signed McCardell. Given their history, this was something of a courageous move. They have sought receivers through the draft (Reidel Anthony and Jacquez Green) and failed miserably. They have sought to bring in free agents (Alvin Harper and Bert Emanuel) and failed spectacularly.

So far they've been dazzled by McCardell, who has shown quick feet, good hands and the attitude of a guy who knows how to be a supporting actor. Yes, Keyshawn gives off a lot of light. On the other hand, McCardell has worked in the shadows before.

Professional sidekick. The description should be on McCardell's business card. That's who he is. He's the faithful companion, the trusty co-pilot, the loyal running mate. A hero of a slightly smaller stature. That sort of thing.

It's an important job, sidekick. Oh, you don't get a lot of pub. No one ever made a TV series called Hawk for Hire. No one ever made a movie called Garth's World. For the most part, sidekicks have slightly less powers and are slightly less appreciated. Still, they have their moments. Illya Kuryakin shot a few bad guys. So did Chewbacca. And for that matter, Hutch.

Hey, sometimes the hero gets tied up. Sometimes the bad guy has a henchman. Sometimes the starlet has a cousin from Richmond. And sometimes, in football, the other team double-covers the other side.

In other words, you need a second guy.

Last season the Bucs were in dire need of a secondary threat to the secondary. After the first 50 or so passes in Keyshawn's direction (or, if you prefer, week three), other teams caught on to the Bucs' plan, which was to throw it to Keyshawn whenever possible, including halftime. If opposing teams had put any more defenders on him, the field would have tilted and everyone would have slid off.

The result was Johnson caught a lot of passes, 106. But most of them were nonscoring passes, 105. Has anyone ever caught 105 nonscoring passes in a season? Enter McCardell, who played the same tune on the same second fiddle with the Jaguars. Over six seasons, he averaged 80 or more catches a season for more than 1,000 yards.

The past two seasons, he has had 94 and 93 catches, which would be the second and third best seasons ever by a Bucs receiver if they happened here. Still, teammate Jimmy Smith got most of the adjectives. The same thing happened to Ralph Malf.

"I've been impressed with how hard Keyshawn works," McCardell said. "I can get along with anyone who busts his butt every day the same way I do. This is going to be fun. I'm going to enjoy it. If he makes plays, I make plays. If I make plays, he makes plays. We're going to feed off each other. You can't stop both guys. Pick your poison. On the field, we're a lot alike. Off the field, we're different. I'll let him do most of the talking." Right. Like Mr. Spock did.

The point is, any team with designs on being special needs a sidekick, if not a full partner. And pro football history is full of great companions. John Taylor. Jim Kiick. Earl Morrall. Rocky Bleier. Cris Carter. Ernie Wheelwright in The Longest Yard.

Against the Jags, McCardell has a chance to do what few sidekicks get to do. He gets to be in the spotlight. His new team is watching because it still wants to see what he can do. His old team is watching because it wants to see what it will miss.

This moment, then, is for sidekicks everywhere. Renfield and Emma Peel and Little John and Agent 99. Barney Fife and Elwood Blues and the Waco Kid and the nation of England.

This is a chance for the sidekick to take over the show.

You know the guy.

Mini-Key.

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