By HUBERT MIZELL
© St. Petersburg Times, published September 18, 2000
PONTIAC, Mich. -- Tampa Bay won 31-10, but it tasted more like 41-3. Motown moans. This morning, Detroit's rear bumper is especially sore from getting its NFL tail kicked by the Bucs.
Flattened like Wile E. Coyote.
Darling defense, after years of carrying a whopping majority of Bucs load, Warren Sapp and comrades always praying for help, finally is seeing an offensive partner capable of higher numbers.
"It's fun for our D to watch," All-Pro safety John Lynch said. "Shaun King is making good, effective decisions at quarterback. Our offense is so improved on third down.
"When the need gets real heavy, we have Keyshawn (Johnson) to catch passes. They're putting up numbers we love. Forty-one points against Chicago. Now 31, which could've been far more. We're getting accustomed to playing with big leads.
"All told, we're just better."
Re the Lynch third-down comment: The Bucs had a 10-for-16 sizzle against the Lions, who had been undefeated but were suddenly overmatched, even in the Silverdome, heretofore a Bucs death pit.
Oh, the numerical joy.
Tampa Bay controlled the football 60 percent of the time Sunday. Bucs go 3-0. Three games with zero offensive turnovers. Averaging 4.8 yards in Lions strangulation.
Not long ago, I still was figuring that King was coach Tony Dungy's biggest worry. Wondering if the sweet kid from St. Petersburg and Tulane had enough QB gifts to drive Tampa Bay to another NFC Central championship, then deep into January's playoffs.
Nyet on frets.
I've seen the questions beautifully answered. King never is going to be Dan Marino or John Elway, but Bob Griese is within Shaun's youthful, savvy, sure-handed reach.
So far, no King interceptions and no fumbles. Also, no problem generating ample points to keep the Bucs winning, with rising propensity for prodding them one step further than last season, to Super Bowl XXXV.
"I can't say enough good things about our quarterback's development," Tampa Bay offensive coordinator Les Steckel said. "Shaun bought into the program, that if he throws no interceptions we'll win.
"He's still learning. Just 23 years old. There were two or three things against Detroit that we can fix. Shaun dealt beautifully with a big, loud Silverdome crowd. If you like what our offense has been doing, just wait a few more weeks. We've got the players to keep making it better."
Bucs offense . . . the talk, the walk.
Steckel showed entertaining flashes of coaching jazz near Detroit's goal, ordering King to run a QB draw, then calling an end-zone pass to Randall McDaniel, a 35-year-old guard who moonlights as a blocking fullback. Both times, the Bucs scored touchdowns.
Altogether now, let's say, "In the red zone, the Bucs are lethal!" Words that once seemed unreachable. Actually, it's called "green zone" by Steckel, who opts to use the color of money. You know, the go thing. Whatever hue, Tampa Bay has 12-for-12 dynamics inside enemy 20-yard lines, getting nine TDs and three field goals.
"I think the Bucs might have a little offense," said Johnson, not really meaning the term little. "Stay tuned. We're going to get far better. Shaun is really coming along. Our offensive coaches are putting together great plans. There are plenty of ways to still improve."
Maybe, when they're even better, the Bucs won't have a 19-play drive that eats 9:31 of clock but fails to score a touchdown, like against Detroit. "We struggled on that trip," King said. "But we'll learn from it. We're just getting started. It's going well. We'll get a lot better. You don't win championships in September."
Dungy's faith in King, a healthy run of coaching vibes that dates to Shaun's steering the 1999 Bucs to the NFC Championship Game, has by now progressed considerably beyond the soft-concrete stage.
"Shaun is managing games so well," Dungy said. "Not throwing interceptions. Making the best possible decision most of the time. I've said for months that our offense wouldn't near its peak until maybe midseason. We have good things to look forward to."
Dungy, the prince of placid, had his temperament more tested by Tampa Bay defense against the Lions. It came on a heave-ho, desperation Charlie Batch pass to end the first half.
It should've been batted down. Bucs free safety Damien Robinson made a passive attempt to intercept, allowing Detroit speedster Germane Crowell to intercede and snag it for a 50-yard touchdown.
You could see Tony in (for him) a rare burst that at least resembled legitimate anger. He yelled something. Dungy, a most religious soul, never curses.
I wondered what Dungy's words were on the TD that should've never been allowed. Did he let an ugly fly? I doubt it. We may never know. Although, when asked about the testy moment, Tampa Bay's coach said, "I hope they (TV) didn't show me."
Oh, yeah, the cameras got him.
What do you think? Darn! Shucks! With this man, I would never suggest anything more volatile. He thinks Bucs defense is "doggone good" and the offense is a "dang sight better."
I'm with Tony.