By HUBERT MIZELL
© St. Petersburg Times, published January 24, 2000
ST. LOUIS -- Bless him. Shaun King is going to be NFL okay. But on the Sunday of The Super Tease, his cradle got rocked. At the NFC Championship plateau, it hurt being a rookie. Hurt just enough. King's shortfalls were understandable. Even predictable.
Bottom line is, from a wealth of chances, with Tampa Bay's defense playing like Superman, Batman and assorted other super heroes, the kid and his Bucs offense could scratch out just six points. "It hurts when you're that close (to the Super Bowl), but suddenly going home," said the 22-year-old quarterback. "We didn't capitalize. Six won't do it. During our final drive, I was absolutely confident we were going to deliver a winning touchdown. I took a couple of sacks. That's a no-no."
King completed just 13 of 29 throws, but he was on a 5-for-6 sizzle during the last Bucs drive before fate strangled their Atlanta dream. Final stroke came when Shaun tried a play called "Jet 3 Rocket," which means a heave-and-hope, fourth-down desperation shot at the end zone. It fell incomplete. Just like the Tampa Bay offense.
Shaun has high QB propensities. With his calm, his mind, his potential for accuracy and his personal style. Tampa Bay has heavy hunger for a much improved offensive line, which must be addressed through free agency and the college draft. Bucs also crave a more dynamic colony of wide receivers. Playmakers are in serious short supply.
King missed some open receivers. As the rookie in him began to show, Shaun made a few poor decisions. No real panic, just some uncertainty. But, please, let's remind ourselves, this is a promising NFL yearling, just months out of Tulane University. Given battlefield promotions, all the way to general, when Trent Dilfer and then Eric Zeier became casualties.
Headed for good stuff.
"I learned a lot," King said. "Everything we don't do well is correctable. I have a lot to work on during the off-season. I'm counting on being much improved by next September."
Shaun's future is promising, but
Aren't we still talking the same old agonizing Bucs passion play, with a minimally adjusting cast of characters? Dilfer is all but gone at quarterback, with King bequeathed the continuing challenge. Tampa Bay is blessed with a defense of Super Bowl championship caliber, but the Bucs are continually and agonizingly cursed with an offense prone to flop.
Four times, the Bucs gained possession inside Rams' territory. But they scored just three points from those sweet chances.
Sunday was soooo close.
Tampa Bay is up to its disappointed chops in "what ifs." If only St. Louis, with its space-shuttle offense, had not managed a solitary touchdown against Bucs defenders, the first scored by Rams teams in three NFC finals.
So many what ifs.
If only the NFL instant replay system had worked properly, rather than stealing a critical 11th-hour pass King completed to Bert Emanuel. If only a Bucs delay penalty had not erased an earlier Shaun pass that carried to the Rams 11 in the fourth quarter.
If only the Bucs could score one touchdown. By the way, do we agree on the biggest of problems? Please tell me that Bucs coach Tony Dungy, general manager Rich McKay and every other red-and-pewter decisionmaker fully comprehend a painful need to improve offensive personnel as well as reshaping that department's philosophical and artistic tactics.
Dungy said his defense played well. I would've used a more upbeat term. Like "pretty incredible." Tony applauded Bucs special teams, which was earned. But the coach is always so shy about talking tough on offense misfires.
You know he knows.
Six won't cut it.
Dungy holds his defensive soldiers to huge standards. Tony's disappointment was apparent that the Rams, with an exotic reputation for huge scoring, pulled off one killer touchdown. Still, the coach's smacks for an inadequate offense are almost nonexistent. He's like a baseball manager who loses a 1-0 duel and blames the pitching.
"I obviously didn't play well enough for us to win," King said. "I don't think it was the (loud) crowd. The Rams applied good pressure with their front four. But we had plenty of shots to score more than six points. No way that their 11 should've won the game."
King, the NFL freshman, concluded, "I don't think our offense played terribly. We just didn't capitalize." Love you, kid, but not capitalizing, as your defensive mates are tackling like wizards and working their competent tails to the bone, well, that is kind of terrible.