Tuesday, 4 a.m.
And now comes the last big decision of the season.
With one game to go, does Dirk Koetter look again to Doug Martin?
Or does he decide that all the reasons that he looked instead to Jacquizz Rodgers are still in place? Does he point Martin to the bench once again?
Not that long ago, the decision would have been easy. Martin was the second-best back in the NFL a year ago, and when the Bucs shelled out the big bucks to re-sign him in the off-season, most of us thought it was a swell idea. Martin looked like an asset on this offense, a true weapon for the Bucs. He didn't go 60 very many times, but he usually got four if three yards were given.
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These days, Martin has looked like the Lars Tate of the moment, of just another plodder hoping for another three-yard carry. In eight starts, he doesn't have a 100-yard game. In five of the games, he has averaged less than three yards a carry. He has been completely ineffectual as a runner, and as a result, he's fallen from second in the NFL in rushing to 42nd.
Then there is Rodgers. A pick-up off the streeet, he's had 485 yards in nine games (four starts). He's averaged 4.3 yards a carry. In four starts, he has two 100-yard games.
But those are just numbers. Rodgers has played with more energy. In a game that is a meritocracy, he has simply out-performed Martin.
Me? I would find a way to get both on the field. Both players are more liable to have meaningful carries from the line of scrimmage. Peyton Barber does more on special teams, but he didn't have a tackle Sunday. It seems to me you can find another special teams performer who may or may not make a tackle. I'd dress them both, but I'd play Rodgers on most of the key downs.
But if you have only one player to choose, what does Martin have that Rodgers has lacked? At this point, with the playoffs essentially removed, why go back to Martin at all? What's the upside?
If you're grading fairly, you have to say that the running game is one of the biggest disappointments of the year. Last year, the Bucs were fifth in the league in rushing; this year, they're 22nd. Last year, they averaged 135.1 yards per game; this year, it's down to 100.3. Touchdowns have fallen from 12 to eight.
Worst of all, the way Martin has performed hasn't demonstrated that the Bucs are better off with him in the lineup than without him. You know the worst part of Koetter's decision? It's hard to blame him. Martin has been just another guy in just another pair of cleats.
Koetter has talked about how Martin runs hard. But running hard is the snow-cone praise that pee-wee players get. It doesn't matter if you run hard. It matters if you run well. And Martin simply hasn't. He seems to lack energy. He seems to lack that burst he had to that made you think he could be special in his two good seasons.
Maybe we also expected too much from Martin. Go back to last season, and he has 14 straight games of fewer than 100 yards. He's had less than 100 in 17 of his last 18 games.
Here's a number for you. In his first year, and in his fourth, Martin had more than 1,400 yards in each. In his other three seasons, combined, Martin doesn't have another 1,400 yards on his resume.
Look, it's no secret. Quarterback Jameis Winston is better when he has play action to rely upon. The entire Bucs' offense could use Martin if he could return to his to 2015 form.
For a while, Koetter defended Martin. But the cruelest thing anyone has said about Martin all season was this: “Today, you aren't playing.” And the second cruelest thing was the rest of us acknowledging “Yeah, if it's between him and Rodgers, then I'd go with Rodgers, too.” Again, this is the NFL. You play because you can give the most help.
Personally, I think the Bucs will find a way to make both players active in their final game of the season. I think they'll shore up their special teams elsewhere, and when it comes to controversy, I think they'll run to daylight. They won't cloud Martin's future by sitting him again, as big as the argument is for it.
And if Koetter sits Martin?
It won't be a big deal. And that may be the saddest statement of them all.