NFL Week One Playoff Preview with Former Tampa Bay Buccaneers QB Shaun King
Shaun King is among the most decorated football players in Tulane University history. He led the Green Wave to an undefeated 12-0 record in 1998, including a Liberty Bowl victory over Brigham Young University — and set an NCAA Division I-A single-single record for passing efficiency. Thanks to his handling of Tulane’s spread offense, he came in 10th place in voting for the Heisman Trophy.
As a pro, King was selected by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, bringing the St. Petersburg product home to Florida. After replacing an injured quarterback Trent Dilfer, King showed flashes of what made him special at Tulane as he led the Bucs to multiple postseason appearances. King was on the 2003 Buccaneers team that won Super Bowl XXXVII.
Following stints in Arizona, Detroit and Indianapolis, King would play in both the Arena and Canadian football leagues. He joined the University of South Florida’s coaching staff in 2016, working with both quarterbacks and running backs. Just one year after joining the staff, he was named Recruiter of the Year in the American Athletic Conference.
Zenger News caught up with King to preview the highly anticipated NFL playoffs, and he provided an upset special and leaked one of his Super Bowl teams.
Zenger: Let’s talk some playoff football. Let’s start with Saturday’s games. The Indianapolis Colts will be traveling to Buffalo to play the Bills, who are on fire. Who do you like in this one and why?
King: I’m a big [Bills quarterback] Josh Allen fan. I think he’s had a tremendous season, but I’m ringing a bell here, I got an upset alert in Upstate New York. Twenty-four years — 24 years since the Buffalo Bills have won a playoff game. The Indianapolis Colts have a veteran quarterback, and the one thing I think you need to go into cold weather climate and pull the upset, an effective running game. [Running back] Jonathan Taylor has been outstanding. [Running back] Marlon Mack, a guy that I coached in college, got hurt at the beginning of the season. [Colts running back] Jonathon Taylor in his rookie year has rushed for over a thousand yards — just went for 250, if I’m not mistaken, last week. I think the Colts come in, [quarterback] Philip Rivers’ playoff experience plays a role, I think they are capable of outgunning the Buffalo Bills. This is the upset alert for me during Week One of the playoffs.
Zenger: You had a stint with the Colts. This prediction has nothing to do with that, does it? [laughing]
King: Nothing at all. They cut me, so I have no loyalty to them whatsoever from that standpoint.
Zenger: So, you don’t see the younger Allen being fresher in the fourth quarter than the older Rivers? You actually think Rivers’ experience shines late in that game?
King: I just think experience is going to play a part here. I think Buffalo is the more talented team overall. But I think Indy does a good job of rushing the quarterback. I think they’re athletic enough to minimize Josh Allen extending plays outside the pocket, and I just think the Bills are a year away. I think this year is going to catapult them to whatever happens next year, but I think that inexperience shows up in this game. I am picking the Indianapolis Colts to upset Buffalo.
Zenger: Sure, [Seattle Seahawks quarterback] Russell Wilson has [wide receiver] Tyler Lockett, who is very underrated or underappreciated overall. [Wide receiver] DK Metcalf is a man-child, but it feels more and more like Wilson has to do so much post snap just to get in position to hit one of those targets. The Seattle Seahawks face division rival Los Angeles Rams. Does Russell Wilson’s luck run out on Saturday, or does Seattle prevail?
King: Seahawks big. [Head coach] Pete Carroll knows exactly how to get a team prepared for the playoffs; Seattle got hot at the right time. They are 4-0 and on a four-game win streak coming into the playoffs. The Rams are playing without their starting quarterback. The one redeeming quality the Rams have is pass rush, but Russell is the best in the business at extending plays, having functional mobility. He’s excellent at throwing the ball down the field. I think Seattle wins this game handily.
Zenger: It definitely feels like the Rams kind of stumbled into the playoffs.
King: Yeah, they lost to the Jets, they beat Arizona, but that was without [Arizona quarterback] Kyler Murray for the majority of the game. I think momentum matters going into the playoffs, so I think Seattle wins this one handily. It’s also at Seattle, so I think weather will be a little nippy for LA. I think Seattle has a lot of advantages. I will say this: If [strong safety] Jamal Adams can’t play, I think Seattle wins a close game. But if the All-Pro safety is available, then Seattle wins handily.
Zenger: Now, I gotta pick on your heartstrings, because your beloved Tampa Bay Buccaneers will be on the road to face the Washington Football Team. How does your team fare in the nation’s capital?
King: We should win this game handily. When I say “we” — full disclosure, I played for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Only thing that scares me is, the only thing that has been our kryptonite, is teams that can create instant and consistent pressure on [quarterback] Tom Brady. And Washington is in the top 10 in the league in sacks. They kind of laid the gauntlet down already. [Washington defensive end] Chase Young came out and said they gonna get after Brady. So, they’re not pulling any punches. They not playing the politically correct game. They’re saying: “You’re coming to our house and we’re going to make it uncomfortable for you.”
In saying that, I still think, this is where Brady’s playoff experience is invaluable. I think the Bucs will come up with a game plan to get the ball out of his hands quickly. I think this is where the acquisition of [wide receiver] Antonio Brown makes the most difference, because even if [wide receiver] Mike Evans plays, he won’t be full strength. The fact that we signed a true No. 1 wide receiver means that we don’t really have to adjust anything we’re doing with our support and complementary players. [Wide receiver] Chris Godwin can play as a 2, [tight ends] Cameron Brate, Rob Gronkowski can be complementary players, so we don’t have to elevate and upgrade someone to a position they haven’t had. I think Tampa wins this game comfortably. I think that line which has hovered around 8 and 9 demonstrates that the odds makers agree.
Zenger: Although he has never really been known to light up scoreboards, it does seem like [Washington quarterback] Alex Smith is even more limited — and understandably so, given what he’s come back from and being 18 weeks into a season.
King: I think he’s always been more of a game manager than this mercurial talent that can carry a team that doesn’t have great pieces. I think one of the things that [Washington head coach Ron] Rivera wanted was stability. And that’s why I think they have been enamored and been so loyal to Alex Smith. Having said that, this is a bad matchup for them. Because as good as Washington is at rushing the quarterback, Tampa’s better. You have a guy in Alex Smith … everybody knows the severe leg injury he had. He’s worked his way back, but he’s not fully healthy now. He’s missed a couple of games because he’s been banged up. They don’t have a vertical passing attack, which has given Tampa secondary problems. So, I think the fact that they are going to try and dink and dunk plays right into Tampa’s hands because those linebackers can run like the wind. [Linebacker] Lavonte David and those guys are as good a group as any in the league. Even though [linebacker] Devin White may not play because of COVID protocol, I still think Tampa wins this game easily.
Zenger: Moving on to Sunday’s games, and this is an interesting one to me, Baltimore Ravens against the Tennessee Titans. [Ravens running back] J.K. Dobbins is having a great rookie year. [Titans running back] Derrick Henry is the most dominant back in the league. If they are 1A and 1B, will this game come down to quarterback play — [Ravens quarterback] Lamar Jackson versus [Titans quarterback] Ryan Tannehill?
King: Well, let’s clarify something, I’m not going to allow you to get away with J.K. Dobbins being a 1B to Derrick Henry [laughing].
Zenger: Bad wording [laughing].
King: Derrick Henry might be the most dominant tailback we’ve seen since the Earl Campbell-Walter Payton era. Teams know he’s going to get the ball, they know basically the four or five different run schemes Tennessee is going to present, and still no one can stop him. There’s something to Baltimore and their playoff woes. We’ve seen this movie before. Baltimore playing good going into the playoffs and, for whatever reason, that offense that finished the season in an explosive manner doesn’t put up the same kind of firepower the first week in the playoffs. It’s going to be interesting to see. I’m picking Tennessee to win this game.
I just think their offense is tailormade for the playoffs. I think they’ve scored 40-plus points in five games this year. So, if it turns into a shootout — because Baltimore has been good down the stretch on offense — I think they can outscore Baltimore. I think Tennessee wins this game. I’m a big Derrick Henry fan. People forget: They’re a bad second half against Kansas City away from representing the AFC in the Super Bowl last year. That was a game that they really dominated and probably should’ve won the AFC Championship game last year. I think they pick up where they left off. I’m going with Tennessee.
Zenger: Is there a scenario where Baltimore can do some things like loading the front end and make Ryan Tannehill beat them with his arms — and, as of late, because of the ability to fake inside runs to Henry, his legs as well?
King: I think they’re going to attempt to do that just like everyone else. The problem is, generally the way to defeat the run game is to have an extra piece — to have an unblocked defender that makes it difficult to get the run started. The problem with defending Tennessee is, that guy still has to tackle [running back] Derrick Henry. So, just getting the piece there isn’t good enough. He’s actually gotta accomplish the task at hand, and that’s proven difficult. That’s why Tennessee has so much success running the ball, because if you can get a hat for a hat and get Derrick to the unblocked guy, it’s hard for that guy in a one-on-one situation to consistently tackle him. I’m a believer in Derrick Henry. I don’t think there is any argument that he is by far the best running back in the National Football League right now. I just feel like Tennessee is going to find the way to get the win.
Zenger: Don’t break my heart here: Chicago Bears against the New Orleans Saints. How does this one play out, in your opinion?
King: This is blowout city. The Bears are fugazy — they are counterfeit. I mean, everything about them that you saw over the last four or five weeks of the season during that winning streak is fake. It’s fake news. They have no shot. None! I think this could be the most lopsided game of them all, unless for some reason [New Orleans quarterback] Drew [Brees] is off. We’ve seen this year — I don’t know if it’s age, I don’t know if it’s injury — there are times and points in games where Drew really hasn’t looked like the Drew of last year. Not the Drew of old, because he’s not the Drew Brees from 2010, ’11, ’12, but even the Drew Brees of last year. So, as long as Brees is able to manage the situation and hit open guys, this will be a very comfortable victory for the Saints.
I don’t think Chicago has the firepower to match anything that the Saints could do to them offensively. The unspoken thing actually is how good New Orleans is on defense. They’re outstanding on defense, and I just don’t see [Bear quarterback Mitchell] Trubisky having an answer for that puzzle.
Zenger: Chicago fans will say that was a 26-23 overtime win for New Orleans during the regular season, so why no chance now?
King: Playoff experience. I think the fact that they are going to New Orleans. As much as you like to think that professional athletes only play 16 games that you get up for every game, you give every game the same attention of detail, it’s just not realistic and it’s not true. Sometimes during the regular season, you see outcomes that are not representative to the actual real matchup, from a talent standpoint, a real strategy standpoint. I just think that [Saints head coach] Sean Payton is better than the coach in Chicago, I think Drew Brees is better than the quarterback in Chicago, I think the Saints defense is better than the defense in Chicago, [Saints running back] Alvin Kamara is better than the running back in Chicago, and so on and so forth. I just think New Orleans has every advantage in this matchup.
Zenger: This is an interesting one for me: As a former player and coach, you can shed light on playing not just any team, but a division rival in back-to-back weeks. The Cleveland Browns are going to Pittsburgh, who they had to defeat to get into the playoffs, but the Steelers rested several starters and were still very much in that game. How do you see this one?
King: This is probably the most intriguing game for me. Before the Browns’ head coach was ruled out … just in case people don’t know, he’s the actual offensive play caller. So, him not being there would mean someone else is going to actually have to call the plays, and that’s significant. Because he has the best feel for [Browns quarterback] Baker [Mayfield]. He has the best understanding for that run game and how to get it going. Just for some context: I don’t know if your readers know this, but Tony Elliott is the play caller for the Clemson Tigers. And because of COVID protocol, he was not at the bowl game versus Ohio State. Someone else called that game for Clemson, and you can see, Clemson didn’t look the same on offense. They didn’t have the same rhythm. [Clemson quarterback] Trevor Lawrence didn’t look comfortable. So, I think that’s going to manifest itself here in this game as well.
But I’m telling you, I just gotta look at one thing with Pittsburgh: If the guys in Pittsburgh that are paid to catch the football — actually catch the football — I think Pittsburgh can win the whole thing. I really do. But they were so bad down the stretch this season with drops, I was shocked. I wasn’t really sure what was going on. But if they are rested… I know, [Steelers head coach Mike] Tomlin sat a lot of guys the last regular season game to give them some rest. You gotta remember now, they had that stretch where they kept getting games moved, and I think they played four or five games in like 3½ weeks. So, I think fatigue set in. So, maybe that rest rejuvenated them back to the team that started 10- or 11-0. I’m going to pick Pittsburgh to win, but I’m really looking more big picture for Pittsburgh. Do they look like a team that can win it all, or will they be done the following week?
Zenger: Home field advantage still eliminates traveling, you’re playing in weather that you are already acclimated to, does COVID crowds make home field advantage mean just a little bit less because they are reduced, therefore the noise is reduced?
King: You said it at the end: What makes home field advantage significant is the noise. The fact that when we’re on offense and we’re trying to execute and operate, we can’t communicate because it’s so loud. Home field advantage also creates energy. Unlike some sports that are played in complete silence — let’s take golf and tennis — that’s strictly about skill. Everybody is forced to be quiet while the athlete is performing. It’s about the athlete, their muscle memory and having the skills necessary to compete. Football is a game played on emotion. Football is an emotional roller coaster ride for the guys involved in the game. And having that support system from that home crowd means a lot. Because football is a violent and physical game. It’s a game where you have to convince yourself at times that this pain that I feel isn’t real. The next play is what’s important. And having that energy from the crowd matters. It’s absolutely not the same. At the same time, it’s still home for one of the teams. So, that still is a slight advantage, but nothing as significant as normal.
Zenger: Before I let you go, I wanted to get a quick thought on the two teams who earned a bye week and will be watching from home. How does this weekend impact the Green Bay Packers and defending Super Bowl Champions Kansas City Chiefs?
King: I’ll say this: Green Bay will be in the Super Bowl, Kansas City won’t. Kansas City will not make the Super Bowl. I don’t think that there is a light switch in the NFL that you can turn on and off. Kansas City, the last quarter and a half of the season has been extremely sloppy: They turn the football over, they’re not finishing games on defense. Nothing about them has looked like a team that is going to string together two or three victories and make it to Tampa for the Super Bowl. So, I’m saying that they lose. Green Bay having home field gets them into the Super Bowl, because they play so good historically at Lambeau. The end of the season, they have been outstanding in Green Bay. So, the fact that everyone has to go to Wisconsin I think is a big asset for them, and I think they find a way to make it to Tampa. Green Bay will be in the Super Bowl, Kansas City will not.
Zenger: We will have to revisit these breakdowns. I really enjoyed this. Thank you for the good word and definitely looking forward to more breakdowns from you.
King: Let’s make it happen. And we can do some boxing too, because you know I’m the foremost boxing expert in the United States of America, at least in my mind [laughing].
(Edited by Jameson O’Neal and David Martosko)
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