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Burning Questions

Second-year QB won't have to shoulder offensive burden

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  Expect Shaun King to play a supporting role in the Tampa Bay offense. AP

By Don Banks, Sports Illustrated

TAMPA, Fla. -- Here are three burning questions that are still very much in the process of being answered at the so-far-soggy Tampa Bay Buccaneers training camp at the University of Tampa, along the meandering banks of the Hillsborough River in downtown Tampa. (It's not the heat, it's the humidity.) CNN/Sports Illustrated's Don Banks checks in with them on his tour of NFL training camps:

1. Question: Starting his first full season as a starter, is quarterback Shaun King really ready to take the training wheels off and be at the controls of a presumed Super Bowl contender?

Answer: To hear some describe it, you'd think all King did last year in his late-season starting stint was stand behind center like some cardboard cut-out quarterback, impersonating a passer just to throw the defense off for that extra second or two before another Mike Alstott or Warrick Dunn carry. But give the kid some credit. The Bucs went 5-2 including playoffs with King as a starter, and he was just the second rookie quarterback to win a playoff game since the 1970 merger.

Will King be the focal point of the Bucs' offense any time soon? Nope. Not as long as that stellar Tampa Bay defense and the Bucs efficient, clock-gobbling ground game continue on hand. But with new offensive coordinator Les Steckel aboard, big-play receiver Keyshawn Johnson in house, and two Pro Bowl offensive linemen added in center Jeff Christy and right guard Randall McDaniel, the bar of expectation has been raised offensively in Tampa Bay. And that means for King, too.

King won't be asked to make every throw in the book, and he's not going to have any 40-attempt game days unless things go horribly wrong. But the Bucs are putting more of a emphais on getting him on the move and out of the pocket, where his strongest play-making skills surface. He's also going to have greater responsibility at the line of scrimmage in Steckel's offense, checking his unit into the right play at the right time.

Bottom line? Having taken his baby steps last year, King looks ready to bring it up to a trot this season. He'll still look conservative in approach compared to the other young guns who came into the league in 1999 along with him, but chances are King will find a way to win a game or two by himself with either his arm or feet in 2000.

2. Question: Doesn't it stand to reason that Tampa Bay's vaunted, No. 1-ranked defense has to be weakened by the free-agent loss of Pro Bowl middle linebacker Hardy Nickerson, who was a big part of the unit's heart and soul?

Answer: Not really. With all due respect to Nickerson, who was having Pro Bowl seasons even before Tampa Bay turned it around under Tony Dungy, he was replaceable in the Bucs' scheme. Why? Because third-year linebacker Jamie Duncan is a man Tampa Bay coaches have great confidence in.

When Nickerson went down with an inflammation of the sac around the heart with six games to go in 1998, Duncan, then a rookie, stepped in and performed more than capably. During that span, Tampa Bay's defense improved from sixth to second overall in the league.

With that trial by happenstance, the third-round pick out of Vanderbilt served notice right then and there that he was the guy to some day pick up the baton that Nickerson left behind. The club was so certain that Duncan was ready to be the man in the middle that they made only a cursory attempt to keep Nickerson from going to Jacksonville.

Duncan is a strong run-stopper and will most likely won't play every down like Nickerson did. He's slated to come off the field in the nickel package. Nickerson's absence should mean even more play-making chances for weakside linebacker extraordinaire Derrick Brooks and underrated strongside starter Shelton Quarles.

Have no fear Bucs fans. That No. 1 overall defensive ranking looks safe for now.

3. Question: Isn't it possible that the Bucs' huge offseason acquisition of receiver Keyshawn Johnson could wind up being a relative bust, just like the last two big-name free-agent receivers signed by Tampa Bay, Alvin Harper and Bert Emanuel?

Answer: Perhaps, but not likely.

Harper's acquisition in 1995 was an unmitigated disaster, but the circumstances were vastly different in Tampa Bay in those days. That was a Bucs team in the final year of Sam Wyche's wacky four-season tenure still struggling to avoid furthering its NFL record streak of consecutive double-digit loss seasons, not a Super Bowl contender.

Harper had been a talented, big-play second receiver behind Michael Irvin in Dallas, but one who only caught 40 or so balls a season. The Bucs were asking him to elevate his game to No. 1 receiver status, which included running more than just go routes. He was horribly miscast in the role, couldn't handle the pressure from the fans and media, got injured just before the season opener and really never recovered.

Emanuel came to Tampa Bay in 1998, after being part of a very successful group of receivers in the pass-happy Atlanta Falcons offense. But early season injuries rendered him all but useless that year, and he never really found his niche. Last year it was more of the same, with injuries again sidelining him off and on. Tampa Bay released him and he signed with Miami this offseason.

Johnson, for one, is more proven than either Harper or Emanuel, and has the numbers during the past four years to back it up. His competitiveness may be unparralleled in the league, and he has played for a team that nearly made the Super Bowl in the largest and toughest media market in the NFL. He can take the heat, and loves being in the spotlight.

Keyshawn's numbers might not be glitzy this season in Tampa Bay's offense, but his impact will be felt, and he'll help the Bucs win by just being a downfield threat. Count on it.

Related information
Stories's 2000 NFL Preview's 2000 Tampa Bay Team Preview
Buccaneers open training camp with high expectations
Sean King feels Tampa Bays improved offensive firepower will make things easier on him. (95 K)
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