Tuesday, 4 a.m.
On the fringes of the NFL, this is the dream.
On the outskirts of fame and fortune, this is the hope.
Dozens of them sift through the training camp, some for a day's stopover. Sometimes, they get a contract, but no one really knows they're there. They are the backup to the backup, trying to gain a foothold into the league. Sometimes, they are there, and then they are gone. Thanks for stopping by.
It is a cruel sport. A player gets a decent shot with his first team, a cup of coffee with his second, a brief handshake with his third. There are dozens of players, bouncing from one camp to another for scraps of his goals. There are hundreds of players who swear that if they could have only gotten their opportunity, they could have been a star.
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Seldom does it work out the way it worked out for Jacquizz Rodgers, a player once more. Seldom does he get an opportunity and a spotlight and success, all at once. A star is reborn? Well, maybe.
Rodgers saved the Tampa Bay Bucs Monday night. Because Jameis Winston had thrown too many interceptions, because the defense had gone onto the field in terrible field position after a turnover too many times, the team decided it was going to be conservative against the Carolina Panthers Monday night. But to live that way, and to succeed, meant that the team needed a good running back, one that hit the hole hard,one that could slash a little bit.
You know, someone like Rodgers.
This was the night he had dreamed about, the night he swore was inside of him. He had played 72 games in the NFL, not that you'd notice, but running backs believe they are only a block away. All they need is the ball, right? All they need is a chance.
Oh, Rodgers had some decent games along the way. Against Miami he once had 89 yards in a loss back in 2013. Against Philadelphia the year before, he had a 60-yard game. But for the most part, Rodgers' career was three yards in this game, four in that one, eight in that one.
But when Rodgers was cut this year by the Chicago Bears, the Bucs had an interest. They had Doug Martin, of course, but after Martin, they really didn't have anyone in their backfield. Charles Sims, the backup, was more of a pass-catcher. Rodgers was a fit … eventually.
Then came Monday night, when he carried the ball 30 times for 101 yards (and caught it five times). In the NFL last year, only one back – Devonta Freeman – had that many touches in a game.
On the final drive of the night, Rodgers touched the ball five times. Yeah, he still had plenty left in the tank.
“Well, I’m watching the game, I’m there,” Koetter said. “You can tell when a guy’s gassed or not. Tim Spencer, our running back coach, took him out a couple times in the first half and I kept looking at ‘Quizz’ going, ‘I’m going to need you on third down.’
“I trust the guy a lot, I know I’ve seen him do it before – like I told you guys last week, he was a workhorse in college, I know this isn’t college football. It would’ve shown up [if he was tired]. I think he had 18 carries in the first half, I think it would’ve shown up if he was wearing down and it didn’t show up. The guy’s standing right next to me on the sideline when he’s out there and you’re looking at him in the game and shoot, he’s playing at a high level. A wise coach told me a long time ago, ‘Feed the stud. When the guy’s hot, give him the ball.”
Style? Sims tends to dance as he hits the hole. Not Rodgers. He's a bowling ball, attacking the defense with all 5-5 of his frame.
You know who Rodgers reminded me of Friday night? Remember Earnest Graham, the old Bucs? Earn-it? He has an economical running style, one that a team can live behind. Oh, he's small, and he won't get 101 with every start. But he can run it effectively enough until Martin gets back, and together, they can run it enough that the entire burden of moving the ball isn't on Jameis Winston.
Yeah, yeah. Roberto Aguayo is going to get some headlines because of his game-winning field goal. But this was Rodgers' game.
It was Rodgers' game to the point that the Bucs had a third-and-nine late. Winston had just missed an interception. So Koetter ran while the critics howled that he had just shown a lack of confidence in Winston.
“That wasn’t a lack of confidence,” Koetter said. “Again, when analysts say stuff like that, that’s like – when Jon (Gruden) was coaching and someone said that about him, you know what he’d be standing up here saying? ‘That guy doesn’t know what I’m thinking or anything about my team.’
“He gets paid to talk on T.V. I get paid to coach the Bucs. Those guys can say whatever they want. Yeah, we ran it on third-and-nine. You know what? We also ran it on third-and-three and third-and-five and we were two out of three running the ball on third down and we weren’t nearly that successful throwing the ball. It had no reflection at all on my confidence in Jameis Winston. There can be no person on this planet, other than his parents, that’s more confident in Jameis Winston than me.”