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King may be a prince, but can he be a leader?

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© St. Petersburg Times, published September 3, 2000

FOXBORO, Mass. -- Love the kid. My hands eagerly collide in appreciation for his style, faith and achievements. But, as the Bucs begin this season of heavenly expectations, the biggest concern is Shaun King.

His coach, Tony Dungy, seems unworried. King is calm not jittery, confident not doubting and has the mentality of a winner.

But the popular, homegrown quarterback from St. Petersburg has yet to amply prove to NFL World that he's tall enough at 6 feet or thereabouts, can throw a football with Sunday strength aplenty and trigger a heretofore lowly Tampa Bay offense to legit respectability.

Time to show, Shaun.

We will expand on that theme, but first I'd like to bellow about something that is missing from the 2000 Bucs. From beyond Dungy's department. This is the 25th season of Tampa Bay's franchise, something I expected to see appropriately celebrated with uniform patches and other autumn commemorations. Not a stitch. Not a peep.

Oh, yeah, the Bucs generation did bring a load of ugliness, too many crummy seasons that stunk with bad deals, cheapskate attitudes and miserable leadership. But the Bucs did survive, to now thrive, packing Raymond James Stadium with upbeat screamers who bought highly expensive tickets. Pewter should be celebrating silver.

Hear me, Glazers?

Okay, back to football.

Dungy loves to rule with defense. His favorite winning scores are 7-3 or 2-0. But the Bucs can be only so abundant, climbing only so high on the NFL ego tree, with an offense shy on creativity and point production.

They must know that.

Otherwise, there would've been no impressive moves for Keyshawn Johnson, an expensive and effusive wide receiver who cast aside New York, or graybeard Pro Bowl blockers Randall McDaniel and Jeff Christy, who saw the Bucs as more Super Bowl-ready than their old Vikings.

Today, perhaps proof will fester that King can be an efficient, low-risk, touchdown-creating QB in the non-demonstrative 1970s mode of Bob Griese with Miami's back-to-back Super Bowl conquerors.

Please, do not misread my concerns about Shaun. I'm heavy on his side. I'm not saying King is not the Bucs delivery man, no way. It's just a hunger for deeper proof. A more secure feeling. It's a yearn you hear expressed on streets from Citrus County to Lee, from even the most devout Bucs patrons.

King isn't aiming to be a get-by quarterback, nor should he. Shaun subscribes to Dungy's conservative run-the-ball philosophy, blended with well-timed air shots.

Let's see these Bucs click, Sunday after Sunday, like those old Dolphins; then a multitude of minds will rest easier in my neighborhood.

We'll know a lot by mid-October, as evidence begins with today's New England challenge. Last year, the Bucs wobbled out of the gate, blowing the opener to the Giants at home, then going 3-4 before exploding with strength that led to an 11-5 record and the NFC Championship Game.

Zealots are predicting a 14-2 record, or similar opulence. To me, that's outrageous. I did pick the Bucs to make the Super Bowl, but with convictions still thirsting for fuel. These are not the 49ers of the '80s. Not the Dolphins or Steelers of the '70s. Not yet for sure. Skyscraping status is absolutely a Bucs work in progress. A repeat of 11-5 will not be a bad thing.

That's my guess: 11-5.

This season begins even tougher, with a hairy six-pack, the Patriots to be followed by ambitious Chicago at Ray-J, plus another home game in the mix against the Jets and road exams versus notable meanies Detroit, Washington and Minnesota.

Tampa Bay plays in absolutely the toughest division, the NFC Central, where the Vikings, Packers and Lions could be playoff stuff and the Bears are one of pro football's most improved teams.

If the Bucs go 11-5 again, that would excellent. Maybe even good enough to repeat as division champs. But this isn't like picking a record for Florida State, Nebraska or Alabama. Saturdays are far more predictable than Sundays.

To elevate to XXXV, playing a Super Bowl on Ray-J grass, the Bucs desperately need to earn home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

Conference rivals are fierce, especially the voracious Redskins in the lukewarm East and the incumbent champion Rams in the predominantly puny West. You want to be playing in late January, but somewhere other than St. Louis or suburban Maryland.

It won't come easy.

Tampa Bay defense, even with Jamie Duncan/Booger McFarland replacing Hardy Nickerson/Brad Culpepper, should be splendid. Maybe not to the dominant heights of a season ago, but plenty good enough to contend for Super Bowl XXXV.

Those huskies need more help from King and Co. Here in Foxboro, the restructured Les Steckel-coached Bucs offense gets its first text on a real battlefield.

Let's see some pleasant surprises, some X's and O's previously unattempted by Tampa Bay, getting Keyshawn and new pass-snagging mates Jacquez Green, Dave Moore and Reidel Anthony more effectively involved.

To get that done, Tampa Bay must run the football with consistent thump. Steckel, it is promised, will find more ways to use large/small tote fellows Mike Alstott and Warrick Dunn. If they can get three touchdowns a game, it'll be a year of many smiles.

Along with the QB, my largest concern is offensive line. We presume McDaniel at left guard and Christy at center will continue the good work done at Minnesota. Frank Middleton needs a more serious and better-honed approach at right guard. But it's the tackles who will be most watched.

Paul Gruber has retired. To be candid, was fading all through 1999. Jason Odom is warehoused for the season with a bum back. Pete Pierson and Jerry Wunsch must play better than ever. Enemy pass rushers will come at them especially hard, knowing the Tampa Bay bookends are a chapter or two shy of high acclaim.

But let's get it going. To find out what's for sure about these Bucs. I expect them to beat New England, just as I thought they would handle the New York Giants to start the '99 season. Our tastes in Bucs Country have dramatically risen.

Though we remember the bad old days, and appreciate the far-better new times, an entree of cheap hamburger or leftover pork is no longer acceptable or exciting to the Tampa Bay palate. This season, expectations are rich, anticipating weekly menus loaded with salmon, filet mignon and creative desserts, with an XXXV feast at the end.

Now to Act 1.

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