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In the end, King lulls Bucs into another victory

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By GARY SHELTON

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 13, 2000


TAMPA -- If you want to know the truth, the arm did not exactly shake the heavens.

There was no sound of cannon fire. No lightning bolts across the sky, either. The kid quarterback threw five passes when it counted. He hit three of them. Twenty-five yards. The legends did not awaken. Canton did not call.

If you want to be honest about it, the feet were not exactly ablaze, either.

There are no magic shoes here. No razzle, and darned little dazzle. He ran twice. Nineteen yards. No one called Barry Sanders for a comment. No one had to cover up the skid marks.

So go ahead. Talk all you want about what the comeback was not, or what the quarterback was lacking. Talk about small numbers and long field goals. Talk about an offense that still looks as if it is swimming upstream. Talk about it was too ugly to talk about. But talk about this, too:

Shaun King's team won.

Again.

More and more, that seems to be the measure of this kid. He will take you on a wild ride, speeding around corners on two wheels with the headlights out. He will not look particularly pretty, and he will not look particularly smooth. But then the game will be over, and the scoreboard will be leaning his way.

Fifteen times, King has started. Ten times, the Bucs have won. Although he is still young, and although he is still prone to funks that can drive you crazy, there appears to be something of a knack there. Maybe, just maybe, the kid can play this game.

Go back to Sunday, when the game appeared to be slipping away into something called the Matt Hasselbeck Show. The Packers, a one-man team without the one man, somehow had taken a 15-14 lead into the fourth quarter, and from the way the Bucs offense was playing, 15 looked as if it might be running up the score.

For one thing, the Bucs offense was awful. King had missed his past five passes, and the team hadn't picked up a first down the entire third period. It was as if King's medication -- he had suffered from tonsillitis all week -- was wearing off as the game wore on. The temptation was to lean to the guy next to you and ask if he was aware of what a nifty game Trent Dilfer had had that day.

Then King had the ball, and just like that, Bad Shaun was good. Good Shaun was back. On third and 2, he rolled right, then pulled the ball back and rambled down the field for 14 yards. The drive stalled, but that was enough for Martin Gramatica to kick the Bucs back into the lead.

The next drive, same thing. King had one completion negated when Jacquez Green was ruled out of bounds, another when a Green Bay challenge showed Keyshawn Johnson had dropped a ball. But on third down, King evaded Steve Warren and John Thierry and ran five yards, just enough to set up another Gramatica field goal.

In other words, it wasn't the distance that was important to the way King played, it was the time. You take a quarterback's measure in the fourth period, when the game is slipping away, when the lights are hotter and the moment bigger and the defense fiercer. Great quarterbacks rise to the moment. Bad quarterbacks shrink.

And King?

"It's too early to tell yet," he allowed. "I think I'm that kind of quarterback. I always have been. But I have to do it a few more times on this level before you can say that."

That's true enough. But even last week, there was an improvement in King in the final period. The Bucs sputtered most of the day against Atlanta, then came the final period, and King hit Green on a 35-yard pass on third down. Later in the drive, he hit Johnson on a 29-yard touchdown, and the Bucs pulled away.

"There is something to quarterbacks playing well in the fourth quarter," Bucs coach Tony Dungy said. "To me, that's what playing quarterback is all about. Even last year, we thought we had that in Shaun. It doesn't matter what his stats are that day. When you have a critical play you have to make to win, it's in his mind that he's going to make it."

And yours?

Dungy grinned. "Yeah. It's in my mind he's going to make it, too."

More and more, King's teammates believe it, too. Look, it isn't the easiest thing in the world to do, to forget about a night that doesn't look as if it belongs to you, to shrug off the interceptions and overthrows and to step into a huddle where the rest of the players can feel your heartbeat. But King at least shows signs he's that kind of a quarterback.

"Look at Tiger (Woods)," King said. "Say he bogeys the fourth hole. Then he comes back and eagles the eighth. It's the same thing. You can play bad in the third quarter, but then you still have to hit the third and 8."

So the third quarter was a bogey.

"It was a par," King said, grinning slightly. "It's just that I hit it into the sand first."

Granted, there were times earlier this year, you wondered if King even could get off the tee. King seemed to have lost the intangibles that allowed him to succeed, the poise and the patience. But he seems back to that now. The Bucs have won three in a row, and he has nine touchdown passes in the streak.

So go ahead. Measure what you want. Talk about Dilfer's yardage or Testaverde's touchdowns. Talk about stats and spirals and sizzle.

King is talking about winning.

Seems like that ought to be enough.

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