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It's good to be King

He's young, popular and on the spot in his hometown. As the season opens, Bucs QB Shaun King likes where he sits.

By RICK STROUD

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 3, 2000


FOXBORO, Mass. -- Shaun King is at Burger King. Every Monday, his radio show is broadcast live from a different restaurant location. The first episode was so popular that hundreds of adoring fans could not get in the building. The best way to see the man who drives the Bucs is from the drive-thru. He is fast food and fast times. A quarterback so hot, his career has been microwaved.

"I think he relishes it," Bucs coach Tony Dungy said.

But King is in a pickle. A year ago, the hometown hero piloted the Bucs to the NFC championship game as a rookie. But with Super Bowl XXXV at Raymond James Stadium this season, he must get Tampa Bay to Tampa.

photo
[Times photo: Toni L. Sandys]
Shaun King carries the weight of Bucs' hopes, but Tony Dungy says, "He enjoys it, very much."
"The biggest problem he's got is being in his hometown where everybody knows him and everybody knows where he is and how to get in touch with him," Dungy said. "But actually being the quarterback and doing the quarterback's job, I think he's ready for that.

"He enjoys it, very much. He's learning to deal with some of the things that go along with that. But he knows the thing that makes him the feel-good story is when you're winning and playing well. He understands that. He knows what he has to do for us to win and for him to play well."

At 23, King has been thrust into role that few, if any, NFL players enjoy. He is the leader of a team picked by some to win the Super Bowl. Growing up in Tampa, going to school in St. Petersburg and quarterbacking his backyard Bucs makes him as popular as Pokemon.

But King has just seven starts in the NFL. Two of them came in playoff games where he struggled. Today, he begins the season trying to solve a New England Patriots defense that is hard as calculus.

"The only thing about being a leader, it's hard to lead in this league if you don't have a track record year in and year out," King said. "Until I've got that, I can be vocal. But there are certain things that (other people) can get away with that I can't. I think it's good to realize that. This league is predicated on what you've done and what you're doing and not what you have the potential to do."

Think about it. Five quarterbacks were taken in the first round ahead of King a year ago and none of them wake up to the expectations that he has. Do you think Tim Couch, Donovan McNabb, Akili Smith, Daunte Culpepper or Cade McNown are expected to be hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in January?

King is, and it's a mixed blessing.

He is smart enough to understand that the high point of his entire career may be happening right now. But he is so inexperienced that it is hard to capitalize on that opportunity. Toss in a second offense to learn in as many seasons and a rock star popularity and you've got a quarterback who is being pulled in so many different directions that he needs to be made of rubber.

"I think he's handled it average," quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen said. "There's two things that come with that. One, you have a great upside. But you also have a chance that if you don't do well, you're in your hometown and you can be the biggest flop ever, too. That's a two-sided coin. The thing that's important to him is how he's going to manage his life as a starting quarterback in the NFL.

"He has a tendency to gravitate to the fun. I tell him you have time for both. This is the only job in America in off-season where you can bust your tail until noon, be off and be the hardest-working quarterback in the NFL. You don't need to be going to concerts on Friday nights. Those days are over for 20 weeks. The gist of it is can I manage my life in this fast lane business?"

Say this about King: He's trying.

Despite a heavy social calendar, King stayed committed to an off-season workout program that resulted in him losing about 20 pounds, down to about 215 from a pudgy 235 a year ago. He also spent more time in the film room, dissecting defenses and paying more attention to detail.

The result was a productive preseason in which King completed 61.5 percent of his passes while learning a new offensive system under coordinator Les Steckel.

"I think the positives I've seen is that he worked hard in the off-season and got himself into shape and he has a more sober attitude toward preparing," Christensen said. "I think he's throwing the ball much more accurately. There's more of a focus on the details, his fakes, his throwing motion, his reads. You're a little more flippant when you don't think you're going to get into a ballgame. He's much more detailed in his questions and what he wants to know."

Steckel might be the best person to judge King's development in the new offense.

During his coaching career, he has tutored quarterbacks like Tony Eason, Kordell Stewart and Steve McNair and genuinely seems impressed with King's leadership and work ethic.

"He's really exceeded my expectations, he really has. He's a great individual," Steckel said. "I love the way he runs the huddle. He's a great leader. I've always said his personality is special. The thing that I'm very impressed with for a young player, he's a very intelligent young man. And he's a very intelligent football player.

"The thing that I'm so impressed with Shaun is he grasps it quickly. And he has a good understanding of what we're doing and he's so confident ... that makes a special person."

Dungy fell in love with King's abilities at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., a year ago when the Tulane quarterback was voted the team's offensive captain. That confidence was rewarded when King was forced into the lineup after injuries to Trent Dilfer and Eric Zeier and led the Bucs to their first NFC Central title in 17 years with victories against Minnesota, Detroit, Green Bay and Chicago.

"We thought he would eventually be our quarterback. We didn't know how soon," Dungy said. "But he comes in and throws a touchdown pass to win at Seattle, we play on Monday night and win. Then you come back against Detroit and we're having trouble running the ball and they're ahead most of the game. We have to throw the ball to win and we win it. I think at that point the team just kind of felt like, hey, here's the guy we're going to ride."

The question is, how far? You think Kurt Warner was a good story. Consider how popular King would be if he helped the Bucs become the first team to play in a Super Bowl in their home stadium.

For now, at least, King rules.

"This is important," Christensen said. "You add that ingredient of pressure. This is the first test. The other ones were pop quizzes and don't have anything to do with the final grade. This is one of 16 tests that all count to the final grade."

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