Bucs counting on Martin to be a star again

by Gary Shelton on June 2, 2017 · 0 comments

in general, NFL, Tampa Bay Bucs

Thursday, 4 a.m.

Doug Martin has a hitch in his giddy-up. Just that.

He has a boo-boo. An owie. Martin, to the Bucs' way of thinking, has  a minor injury. An ankle, maybe. Maybe a hamstring (which has bothered him). Maybe he has a sick relative. Nothing more. Nothing to worry about as Martin runs toward the end zone.

Pretty much, that's been the approach of the Tampa Bay Bucs this off-season. Never mind whatever drug it was that got Martin popped for the first three games of this season. Never mind that he was a crashing disappointment, as he has been for three of his five seasons. Never mind that the fan base seemed fine if the Bucs wanted to dump Martin and start over.

But the Bucs believed, and who knows, it may pay off for them. After all, Martin is only 28, and two seasons ago, he

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was the second-best rusher in the NFL. The Bucs have spoken about Martin in glowing terms, talking about how much energy he has and how good he looks. The team has a bundle of faith wrapped up in Martin, so much so that they didn't fish in free agency and they barely addressed the position in the draft (taking Jeremy McNichols only in the fifth round).

Are they right? Is Martin trustworthy again? When you consider how much of the team's offense is based on the play-action pass, it seems like a gamble. On the other hand, the team knows Martin best, and they are aware of how much he means to the offense.

Even if Martin wasn't facing a drug suspension, you could debate his impact in the Bucs' backfield. He was a star in his first year and his fourth year. In his other three years, injuries and low production held him to less than 500 yards a season.

How important is it that the Bucs run the ball? Consider this: In most of the seasons they've been good, they have run the ball. That's shouldn't surprise anyone, of course. The Bucs have been largely a defensive team, and field position and solid defense have been important.

Consider this: The Bucs have only won 10 games or more in seven of their 41 seasons. In those seven, they had a 1,000-yard rusher four times. Two other times, the Bucs have run for at least 949 yards. It was only in 2002, the Bucs' Super Bowl season when they had the top defense in the league, that the Bucs have won with an ordinary running game. That year, Michael Pittman had 718 yards to lead the Bucs.

In 1979, Ricky Bell had his best season with 1,263 yards. In 1997, Warrick Dunn had 978 yards. In 1999, Mike Alstott had his best season with 949 yards. In 2000, Dunn had 1,133 yards. In 2,005, Cadillac Williams had 1,178 yards. In 2010, LeGarrette Blount had 1,007 yards.

Oh, you can run the ball and not win. No one doubts that. The Bucs, in certain years, have had a good running game but little else. Who was better than James Wilder in 1984. He rushed for 1,549 yards for a team that won only five games. The next year, Wilder ran for 1,300 more yards … and his team won twice. Errict Rhett had back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons on losing teams in 1994 and 1995. Martin has had two seasons of more than 1,400 yards, and the Bucs had a losing record in both.

But this team, in particular, needs to run the ball. Jameis Winston is a much better quarterback when teams have to pay attention to stopping the run; that'll get opponents out of nickel coverage. It'll keep the pass rush out of his face, too.

Of course, that's where Martin comes in. With only 13 games on his schedule this year, it's unlikely that he'll have another 1,400-plus season. But anything close to 1,000 would be just fine. You want the opposition to walk a safety up into the box; that just creates more passing lanes for a potentially dangerous receiving corps.

Now consider this: The Bucs play six teams who were in the top 10 rushing defenses last year. They play 13 against teams in the top 20. The Bucs need to be able to run the ball. If you run the ball, a pretty good offensive line looks like a very good one. If you run the ball, the throwing lanes open up. If you run the ball, the pass rush slows down.

Last year? Martin averaged 2.9 yards per carry. That needs to improve by a full yard per attempt.

Over the years, the Bucs had had very good running backs. They haven't had enough great ones though. Consider this: In the team's top 30 running backs in all-time yardage, there are five quarterbacks: Josh Freeman, Vinny Testaverde, Doug Williams, Steve Young and Trent Dilfer.

Briefly, then, a look at the Bucs' top 10 running backs:

10. LeGarrette Blount: Blount played in only 40 games, and started only 21. Still, he had a 1,000-yard season, and he's lasted in the NFL for a long time. The Bucs should have used him more.

9. Errict Rhett: Rhett was gangbusters in his first two years, but a holdout in year four doomed him in Tampa Bay as Tony Dungy took over. Rhett averaged only 3.5 yards per carry.

8. Ricky Bell: Bell was drafted ahead of Tony Dorsett because he could take the pounding.He didn't last long, however, as he contracted a fatal blood disease. Still, he gained more than 3,000 yards for Tampa Bay.

7. Michael Pittman: Pittman had his problems off the field, but he was a good player on the Bucs' Super Bowl-winning team.

6. Reggie Cobb: Cobb didn't last long with the Bucs, who seemed determined to wear him out.

5. Doug Martin: Martin is already one of four players who have exceeded 4,000 yards as a Buc. Part of that were two 1,400-yard-plus seasons.

4. Cadillac Williams: In his first four games, he was as good as anyone. Knee injuries slowed him down, but Williams played hard.

3. Mike Alstott: Alstott scored an amazing 58 times for the Bucs (and had 32 fumbles). Remembered for his sheer effort near the goal line.

2. Warrick Dunn: Dunn was even better as a Falcon, but in six seasons with the Bucs, he ran for 4,986 yards.

1. James Wilder: Wilder had the disadvantage of playing for bad teams. Still, he's the all-time Bucs' leader with 5,957 yards. His 37 scores are second only to Alstott.

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