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King and his court look like jesters

By GARY SHELTON, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 24, 2002

TAMPA -- Blame it on Shaun King. That's what I say.

After all, if you review the film closely, you will discover this: King didn't cover a Steelers receiver all night.

Not only that, not once did he put a decent pass rush on Tommy Maddox.

And if you're particularly harsh, you will notice he also did not block a soul. Not one.Yep, if you check the final summary, you'll find King didn't make a tackle, catch a pass or hit a punt. Dang the guy.

To be fair, King didn't do a lot at quarterback, either, and the world being the way it is, that's probably going to get most of the noise today. After two seasons in mothballs, King dared to play, well, like a guy who had been two seasons in mothballs. Because of it, some of the beloved has worn off him.

They let each other down Monday night, King and his court. The Bucs gave their quarterback no chance, and in return, he gave them none either. They merely shared misery.

Go ahead, then. Yell about King.

Maybe it will keep your mind off the things that are really wrong.

Let's face it. In Tampa Bay, people were hoping for a little more storybook out of King. He always has been a popular player around here, a local hero who is easy to like. King has spent the past 31 games on a shelf in the equipment room, stored away with orange jerseys and Alvin Harper's finger, but people expected him to come off the bench like some Broadway understudy and steal the show.

From the looks of the game plan, the Bucs must have expected it, too. The team has spent all season asking too much of Brad Johnson, and with Johnson out, it turned to King and asked too much of him.

Consider this: The Bucs, with King and his rusty arm at quarterback, passed on eight of their first 11. Does that make any sense? On a night it was obvious King was going to have to shake some cobwebs out of his shoulder, why not be a little more conservative? Why not try to -- here's an idea -- run the ball?

As it was, King's second pass of the night was picked off by Pittsburgh's Chad Scott, who returned it for a touchdown, and the ugly was on. King threw high and low and wide. In all, he hit only 9 of 26 for 73 yards before he was pulled, mercifully, in the third quarter. No matter the circumstances, that's a bad night.

"I have to learn from it," King said. "I'll come out next week and be a lot better. I did a lot of good things out there, but I left some plays out there. It was not a good half of football."

You have to feel somewhat for King, who believed his career was going along swimmingly with the 4-1 stretch run in 1999 and the 10-6 record as a starter the following season. All of that despite two fired offensive coordinators, a string of receivers out to prove they couldn't play and an offensive line picked from the studio audience. A lot of quarterbacks ask for extensions at that point; King was shown the bench.

That said, you have to play better than this. The league is full of understudies who waited for the chance to get their careers out of a graveyard and succeeded. Maddox, by contrast, spent years selling insurance and trying to convince policy holders that, yes, he really had been a quarterback once. Honest.

Instead, this. Such is the nightmare for every backup quarterback. Your chance finally comes, and this is what you get? At the end of the debacle, King had a quarterback rating of 4.9. That's not a quarterback rating; that's a grade-point average. Better yet, that's the temperature that might be waiting for the Bucs in Green Bay.

Today, that should be more of a concern to the Bucs than King. As soon as Brad Johnson is healthy, and perhaps even if he doesn't, King won't be the quarterback. If the Bucs don't go deep into the playoffs, you'll be blaming others.

Look at the rest of this team, however, and there are growing concerns as the playoffs approach. This was the second straight subpar effort, and the defense appears to be springing leaks. Against Detroit, it was the run defense. Against the Steelers, it was the pass defense.

For most of the game, the Steelers overwhelmed the Bucs. Pittsburgh looked quicker, stronger, more creative, and as a result, the Steelers did pretty much what they wished. After a while, you started looking for Bradshaw, Swann, Harris and the rest of those guys.

What might the score have been if the Bucs weren't fired up by Lee Flowers, and if it weren't Monday night, and if there weren't so many playoff implications?

Go ahead, then. Vent your spleen in the general direction of King, who went from yesterday's hero to yesterday's news. Debate Rob Johnson and his renewed candidacy for No.2, if you wish.

Behind that debate, however, the important topic is this: The Bucs appear to be a flawed, wounded team in need of a road map. And gloves.

Keep that in mind as you worry about Johnson's bad back.

If he's going to lift a load such as this, he had better be healthy.

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