By RICK STROUD
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 11, 2001
TAMPA -- It was the Bucs version of the quarterback sneak. Almost nobody could believe the successful, stealthy attempt by Tampa Bay to replace Shaun King as the man under center.
But as general manager Rich McKay says, you never talk about the status of quarterbacks or coaches.
"Once you crack that door, everybody storms through," McKay said.
But if you looked at King's production objectively, you should've seen this coming like a Hail Mary pass.
Sure, King managed to go 15-9 as a starter in his first two seasons, a remarkable record for the 50th overall pick in 1999 from Tulane.
But when it counted most, King wasn't very good last season.
During their four-game losing streak, the Bucs were tied or led in the fourth quarter of each game. But King struggled down the stretch in those games, going 20-of-44 passing (45.5 percent) with a touchdown, two interceptions, a lost fumble and four sacks.
In fact, in Tampa Bay's six regular-season losses, King threw three touchdowns with eight interceptions and 17 sacks. Even during one mostly successful six-game stretch late in the season, King averaged just 113 yards passing as the Bucs turned him into a caretaker quarterback.
Nobody appreciates King's accomplishments more than Brad Johnson, who rarely stepped on the field his first four seasons.
But Johnson also knows it's a bottom-line, unforgiving business.
"Shaun's had a lot of success early in his career," Johnson said. "To do what he's done the last two years is pretty awesome. This is a tough league. You have to earn everything you get. You have to fight for every day that you have."
King is a feel-good story, a local player from Gibbs High who grew up to quarterback the hometown team to within four minutes of the Super Bowl as a rookie.
But he never had to earn the job until now. And he enjoyed the spoils of his fame before bills came due.
Coaches are critical of King's work habits. Tuesday is a day off for NFL players, but young quarterbacks are wise to use it as an extra chance to watch film. King is said to have worked about half of the Tuesdays last season.
For a player who is not particularly big (6 feet), not particularly athletic, not blessed with a particularly strong arm and not particularly accurate, cutting corners won't cut it.
That's why sitting behind Johnson might be the best thing that will happen to King's career. Johnson is among the league's hardest workers and will not be beaten to One Buc Place next season. He credits his success with learning under the likes of Warren Moon, Jim McMahon and Randall Cunningham.
"It's a nice piece of the puzzle," McKay said. "It's rare you sign a Pro Bowl-caliber quarterback that has won as many games as Brad has."
There's nothing that says King can't reclaim his job next season. He is working out six days a week in New Orleans.
"We've got two winning, starting quarterbacks," offensive coordinator Clyde Christensen said. "Not many teams have that. You don't know what could happen. It's extremely hard to be a fortune teller."
If King feels unappreciated, he should call Trent Dilfer.
LAND OF TROY: If the Bucs had not signed Johnson, they likely would've ended up with Dallas icon Troy Aikman. Coaches had begun watching film of Aikman in anticipation of his release. And Aikman had sent word through acquaintances that he still wanted to play and would be interested in the Bucs.
BUYERS MARKET: Teams knocked nearly $100-million off their salary rolls before the kickoff to free agency. That's why none of the Bucs free agents received any worthwhile offers.
Safety Damien Robinson ended talks with the Jets. The phone is not ringing for Jerry Wunsch. And Ronde Barber received interest from Cincinnati and Cleveland, but no offers, according to his twin brother, Giants running back Tiki Barber.