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Tedford Seeks 1-2 Punch in Bucs Backfield

Posted Jan 15, 2014

New Offensive Coordinator Jeff Tedford has months to shape the personnel and playbook, but his approach to the running game would seem to match up well with the Bucs' current backfield assets

  • Years of great running back tandems at Cal convinced Jeff Tedford of the value of a shared backfield
  • RBs Doug Martin, Mike James and Bobby Rainey represent an impressive group of talent from which to construct a running game
  • The Bucs will be looking to establish a reliable identity in the rushing attack in 2014
The return of Lovie Smith to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as their new head coach has led many to anticipate the return of the team's glory days on defense.  After all, Smith was on hand when that unforgettable defense of the late '90s and early '00s was built, and his subsequent decade at the helm of the Chicago Bears was also characterized by success on that side of the ball.

Well, with Jeff Tedford in town as Smith's offensive coordinator, Buccaneer fans might get a reminder of one of the most unforgettable offensive combinations in franchise history, as well.

James Wilder of the early-'80s Buccaneers is still the most prolific rusher in franchise history, though Doug Martin threatened his best seasons in 2012.  Of all Tampa Bay quarterbacks, Brad Johnson probably peaked the highest with the 2002 Super Bowl teams, and top-notch receivers have dotted the Buccaneers' four-decade timeline, from Kevin House to Mark Carrier to Joey Galloway to Vincent Jackson.

There may never have been an offensive combination that fired the imagination of Bucs fans more than "Thunder & Lightning," however.  The tailback-fullback duo of Warrick Dunn and Mike Alstott overlapped from 1997-2001 and was the most successful tandem of runners in team history, in terms of an extended period of years.  The 1997, 1998 and 2000 seasons represent three of the top six rushing campaigns in team history, and Alstott and Dunn were also fixtures in the passing game during that span.  In 1998, for instance, the team rushed for 2,148 yards, it's second-best mark ever, while its Thunder & Lightning combo also combined for 66 receptions and a total of 17 touchdowns.

Dunn went on to split a brilliant NFL career roughly in half between Tampa Bay and Atlanta, while Alstott retired after the 2007 season as one of the most beloved players in team history.  Each was a unique talent that may never be duplicated in Tampa.  That type of shared impact in the backfield, however…that could be on the way back.

Tedford met with the Bay area media on Wednesday, after just four days of work at One Buccaneer Place.  He has only just begun to scratch the surface of the task he's inherited, that of breathing life back into the NFL's 32nd-ranked offense in 2013.  There will be many questions he'll have to address in terms of the team's depth chart, from the front line to the quarterback room.

-- M. James and D. Martin were two of the three backs who posted at least one 100-yard rushing game for the Bucs in 2013
There is at least one spot, however, where Tedford's inherent offensive philosophy already seems to match up well with the assets on hand.  He believes in sharing the load in the offensive backfield, and the 2013 season suggests the Bucs just might be loaded with young, talented and fresh legs.

Tedford's experiences over 11 years as the head coach at Cal, as well as previous assistant coach stints at Fresno State and Oregon State, taught him the value of a versatile and deep backfield.

"I've been very fortunate to be around a lot of great backs – Michael Pittman, who played here; Maurice Morris, at Oregon," said Tedford.  "And then through Cal we were really fortunate to always have two really good backs, whether it was J.J. Arrington and Marshawn Lynch who were together; and then Marshawn and Justin Forsett were together; and Marshawn and Jahvid Best; then Jahvid Best and Shane Vereen.  We really always had a real good 1-2 punch in the backfield, and I think that's what you need.  I think for one guy to carry the load the whole time, especially as physical as this level is, [is difficult].  [You need] to have two and probably three backs that are quality backs that can provide different things for you, as far as third-down backs are concerned, catching the ball out of the backfield, pass protection, all the things to be able to create some matchups.

"I think it's important to find guys that are versatile that can do those things, and then have great speed.  When I say "speed in space," [I mean] to get out-flanked and get guys in the open field that can make guys miss and be explosive with big plays."

Tedford will get to assemble a backfield from among the likes of Doug Martin, Mike James and Bobby Rainey, all of whom had at least one 100-yard game in 2013 and none of whom have been in the league for more than two years.  Martin, James and Rainey weren't a committee last fall; rather, injuries forced the Buccaneers to go from one to the next as lead runners and they essentially never got to work in tandem.  They did get to work, however, and all three looked like viable NFL starters.

Martin, of course, is the likely lead back.  A first-round pick in 2012, he had a marvelous debut season, recording a combined 1,926 yards from scrimmage that ranked as the third-highest total ever for an NFL rookie.  Before a struggling Buccaneers offense could get untracked in 2013, Martin was knocked out for the season in Week Seven by a shoulder injury.

On came James, a 2013 sixth-round pick who was more of a jack-of-all-trades than a workhorse at the University of Miami.  Like the former Buccaneer to which he was often compared, Earnest Graham, James proceeded to show he could thrive as a featured back in the NFL, rushing for 295 yards in what amounted to one full game and parts of three others.  Unfortunately, he took saw his season end prematurely with a knee injury in Week 10.

That transferred the tailback duties to Rainey, an October waiver-wire claim who had all of 13 NFL carries before arriving in Tampa.  Rainey broke out with a 163-yard, four-touchdown game in a big win over Atlanta and added another 100-yard outing against Buffalo in early December.  Rainey's numbers nose-dived with the rest of the Buccaneers' offense over the final three weeks of the season but he still finished with 566 yards in roughly a half-season of work.

There's a good chance that Tedford can find a prolific combination out of at least two of those backs, if not all three, in 2014.  And make no mistake, the Buccaneers will be establishing the ground game next fall.  That doesn't mean Tedford is rewinding the clock or ignoring the ongoing NFL shift to a more pass-centric game.  It doesn't even mean that the run will be the number-one priority on offense on any given Sunday.  What it does mean is that the Buccaneers will be adamant about creating an identity when it comes to running the football, a proven approach they can lean on when needed.

"I think it's leaning that way [towards a QB-driven league]," said Tedford.  "But I think you still have to be able to run the football.  When you get inside the red zone, when you get inside the 10 and the five-yard line…you can throw it all the way down there but unless you can bang it in, not everything can be a pass.  Football in general is going to that – spread it out, spread the field, speed in space, throw the ball.  But I think an identity of a team of being able to run the ball downhill with different run schemes – inside, outside, perimeter, traps – all the different things we want to do on offense, I still think you have got to be able to have an identity of running the football."

The Bucs certainly had such an identity in the days of Thunder & Lightning.  They appear to have the talent – and the direction – to find one that's just as productive in 2014.