© St. Petersburg Times, published December 19, 2000
TAMPA -- It arrived, swift and sudden, at the most unexpected of times. It came with electricity and efficiency, with calm and cunning. It showed up, of all places, here.
In other towns, they call it "an offense."
Golly willikers, Mr. Dungy. At first glance it seems to be a whole scoreboard full of fun.
Who could have believed this? In the most amazing game of them all, in a wild, wacky, wonderful collage of entertainment, the Bucs offense turned into something magical, and a season turned into something salvageable, and even a goal as lofty as a Super Bowl seemed winnable.
When you have seen the unbelievable, all things seem possible. And what would have been harder on the imagination than this, the sight of a previously lame Bucs offense outsprinting the St. Louis Rams to the end zone?
Can you comprehend this? The Bucs, charging from behind in the final seconds? The offense, finally looking more Air Les than Hap-les? This was the offense, finally lifting the Bucs defense across its back and carrying it across the goal.
At last, this was an offense. Finally, this was a quarterback. It was as if the first 14 games (and 25 years) of this franchise were spent in the rope-a-dope mode, setting up a Monday night when the team looked smart, quick, efficient, powerful, potent. Who knew? Finally: an offensive reason to use a thesaurus.
This was Shaun King, the kid quarterback who had pleaded to have his training wheels removed, competing furiously, refusing to allow a late interception to be the reason for defeat. This was Warrick Dunn, the back with the electric feet, spinning and darting and turning invisible on his way to 145 yards. This was Keyshawn Johnson, finally a good investment. This was Les Steckel, finally a good hire.
This was an offense, unchained.
This was a football team, complete.
Such are the rewards of a victory such as this. For months the question has been whether the Bucs would make the playoffs. Now the question is how far they might go once there. Today you have to like the answers better than ever.
Who knew the Bucs had this sort of effort in them? Who knew King would pick this night to remind us why we fell in love with him on another Monday night? Who could predict Dunn, faced with a 14-yard loss, would flip the ball back to King, who somehow would find a way to turn it into a 15-yard gain on the winning drive? Who could predict how resilient the offense would be?
There are certain things in life you never expect to see. Pigs flying. Fish singing. Another Adam Sandler movie. Even by those standards, this was amazing. There were a lot of ways you could picture the Bucs being successful against St. Louis, but most of them ended, say, 5-3. But not this.
For weeks it had seemed, the major goal of the offense was to stay the heck out of the way. King was trusted to take a snap but not a lot more. Every week, it seemed, the Bucs were running further from their playbook. They had less and less use for Johnson, and King seemed to regress every time he dropped back, and Steckel seemed confused by it all. As much as ever, the Bucs seemed satisfied to be a team that was half-built.
Imagine the surprise of Rams defensive coordinator Bud Carson, then, when the Bucs came out like an offense that could swim in the deep end of the pool. They were aggressive. They were hungry. Theywere, basically, unrecognizable.
This was King's finest hour. A week ago, HBO films caught him pleading for the opportunity to play. If we had known he could play like this, of course, a petition would have been started long ago. He was amazing all night, making big throws, big runs, managing the game.
Then it almost slipped away. With third and goal at the Rams 2, King threw high to Johnson, and the ball was batted and intercepted. The Rams scored a heartbeat later, and it appeared the game had slipped away.
Then the offense went out and won the game again. And just like that, you knew why Dungy had stuck with King, and why the team had traded for Johnson.
It was cold, efficient offense, and it is all anyone ever has asked of the Bucs, really. After all those ugly afternoons, when critics would ask Dungy for a bit more offense, like Oliver Twist asking for gruel, Dungy never quite seemed to grasp that this was what people wanted. Dungy always would bristle and respond as if people were asking him for 300-yard passing performances.
But when you see a team function the way the Bucs did Monday night, you wonder why they have kept this offense on cement blocks all season. Yes, Tony, there are a lot of ways to win. But over the course of a season, a team needs to know it can win in a lot of different ways. Guess what? Offense is a way, too.
Funny thing. For most of the week, the talk about this game was about revenge. The word was used so often you would have thought the teams were doing a version of Hamlet. But for all the talk about the past and this game, the best thing you can hope for is that this was about the future. If this really was the shape of things to come, then the Bucs are going to be a handful in the coming playoffs. If they let King play, and if he keeps playing like this, then ask yourself: What playoff opponent wants this team on the other sideline?
Monday night, a team finally discovered what offense was. Now that it's here, can we keep it?