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Bucs message loud and clear

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By GARY SHELTON

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 4, 2001


Call for Mr. King. Call for Mr. King.

Hello? Shaun? Is that you? We have a message for you.

WAKE UP!

If you are Shaun King, and you suddenly find yourself on The Dating Game, sitting between Ryan Leaf and Brad Johnson, this is the assumption you may make. The franchise has grabbed your lapels. It is shaking vigorously. It is trying to get your attention.

The Bucs have bagged a bust.

The Bucs will bid on Brad.

Suddenly, this is quarterback central. The Bucs changed everything on Friday when, in one day, they began pursuit of the most coveted name in free agency (Johnson) and the most cursed name in the NFL (Leaf). Yeah, yeah, yeah. Even as the Bucs got busy, they were talking about how much they loved King, and how they would not blink at the idea of going into the season with him as their quarterback.

On the other hand, if you are King, perhaps you should go throw a few. Just, you know, to keep the shoulder loose.

To quote Carroll, things have just gotten curiouser and curiouser in the Bucs' looking glass. Both publicly and privately, the Bucs remain staunch in their belief in King. But it can hardly be considered an endorsement when a franchise goes out in pursuit of a wing (Johnson) and a prayer (Leaf). If you are King, this is a smell-the-coffee kind of moment. There are things lacking. If you are King, this is time to go to work.

That said, you can hardly blame the Bucs for either pursuit. Yes, King has some intangibles, but what has he done to be considered an untouchable? And what would it hurt him to sit and watch for a while?

Keep this in mind. Even though the Bucs are dealing with one position, this was two different approaches to it. Johnson is an answer; Leaf is a question. Wait. Leaf is the SATs. It's hard to picture Leaf competing to start next year. In fact, Leaf might not be here long enough to take a picture.

That's the beauty of picking up Leaf. He's darn near free. You can spend more on a toaster oven than the $100 the Bucs have wrapped up in Leaf. If it turns out that Leaf refuses to attend workouts, as he did in San Diego, you can cut him. If he is an infection in the clubhouse, as he was in San Diego, you can cut him. If he is stubborn with his contract, they you can cut him. Who knows? Maybe you can raffle off the chance to tell him.

On the other hand, Leaf still has that magic arm that made him the No. 2 pick of the '98 draft, that left scouts debating him vs. Peyton Manning. If he is ready to become the next Kerry Collins or Vinny Testaverde, one of those reclaimed quarterbacks who has to taste failure before landing on his feet, then the Bucs will have won the lottery.

Let's face it. No one likes their odds. There is a reason his teammates hated Leaf in San Diego. He has a lousy work ethic, and big money was the worst thing that could have happened to him. If he's still spoiled and immature, he'll never make it through the off-season.

Still, he's worth a shot. He's 25, and he has played for three head coaches, and he had the weight of a bad team on top of him.

Does it escape anyone that Leaf is exactly the kind of quarterback the Bucs used to draft all the time? They would hand over riches, then they would put the weight of the world on him, and 18 starts later -- 18 -- they would ship him off for the new kid (in this case, Michael Vick).

So many times, the Bucs have been the team that watched someone else take their problem and shape him into something useful. Think of Leaf as a combination of them all. He has Doug Williams' size. He has Vinny's arm. He has the same chip on his shoulder as Chris Chandler. And he likes to golf too much, just like Trent Dilfer.

If you are the Bucs, you sit Leaf down and tell him the situation. You tell him this is his chance to prove the Chargers were as much at fault as him. You tell him this is his chance to play with a good team that won't put it all on him. You tell him he needs to move into the weight room. Then you give him a year off to learn the system.

If he doesn't, you cut him.

Either way, Leaf is not going to help this team get to the Super Bowl any time soon. Johnson, however, might be a different proposition.

It is heartening, and exciting, the Bucs have declared themselves a player in the Johnson sweepstakes. Because the playoffs aren't good enough anymore, and 10 victories aren't good enough anymore. In Johnson, the Bucs would have an experienced, accurate passer.

Again, you can question the odds. For the Bucs, this will not be the hell-bent-for-leather competition of last year, when they went after Keyshawn Johnson. A lot of teams are going to want Brad Johnson, and many of them will be able to outspend the Bucs.

If you are the Bucs, you have to hope there is more than money that interests Johnson. You have to hope he shakes his head at Cincinnati and Kansas City because he wants to win. You have to hope he sees more upside here than in Baltimore, where he would be the blame for anything short of a Super Bowl. Still, he wouldn't come cheaply. At the right price, however, he could be that bargain that puts a team over the hump.

Here's the interesting question. If the Bucs fail with Johnson, do they then turn their attention elsewhere? Answer: Not necessarily. The Bucs want another quarterback only if it's an upgrade. Oh, you wonder what would happen if the Cowboys and Troy Aikman did part ways, for instance. But the guess here is that if Johnson goes elsewhere, King remains the starter, and anyone else comes in to be his backup.

For most of us, this is an interesting time.

For King, it is more than that. It is a signal that your team considers your promise unfulfilled as yet. It is a bugle sounding that it is time for you to head to the workout room.

That isn't the worst thing in the world, either.

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