FB Mike Alstott's touchdown dives have helped the Bucs win two straight, but so has his lead blocking for Cadillac Williams
Tampa Bay Buccaneers fullback Mike Alstott made the Pro Bowl six straight years, from 1997 through 2002, and it would be insincere to suggest that had nothing to do with his frequent opportunities to carry the ball.
Though fullbacks on most teams serve almost exclusively as lead-blockers and pass-catchers, Alstott has always been more than that to the Buccaneers. He has the size of a fullback (6-1, 250), of course, but his nimble feet, incredible balance and sheer will with the ball in his hands made him into something more, a hybrid who averaged nearly 700 rushing yards per season during those six Pro Bowl years.
In 2003, however, Alstott sustained a serious neck injury early in the season and saw his career thrown into jeopardy. Though he fought back to return to the game he loves and once again became an important part of the Bucs' success, he never regained a significant role as a ballcarrier. He also saw his Pro Bowl days come to an end.
Or did he?
Is it possible that Alstott, know in his 10th season and three years removed from his last Pro Bowl berth, could find his way back to the league's all-star game for a seventh time? If so, his path back will be rich with irony, because he has filled more of a prototypical fullback role this year than ever before...and he's thrived.
Alstott has only 61 rushing yards so far this season. Still, he was often indirectly criticized during his Pro Bowl years for the opposite reason, for winning a spot at a position that he didn't actually play thanks to all those rushing yards. That is, the feeling went, he was a tailback taking the fullback spot, while "pure" fullbacks watched at home. But if Alstott's rushing yards were used as an argument against him in the past, then the lack thereof shouldn't be a stumbling block now.
Instead, judge Alstott by the merits of his position, and he has had a standout 2005 season, particularly in the last month.
Catching passes out of the backfield? Check. He has 15 receptions for 124 yards and is averaging 8.3 yards per catch. He still has an uncanny ability to keep his feet after taking a hit, which has allowed him to gain some big yards after the catch. Only three players on the NFC Pro Bowl ballot have more receiving yards than Alstott and one, Washington's Chris Cooley, plays an expanded H-back role.
Short-yardage rushing? Alstott has been nothing short of brilliant in this capacity. His two touchdown dives and one late-game two-point conversion against Washington made the difference in a 36-35 win two weeks ago. He has been simply undeniable inside the 10 this season, and he leads all NFL fullbacks with five touchdown runs.
And lead-blocking? This used to be perceived as Alstott's Achilles heel, whether that was fair or not. Certainly, when measured against the rushing yards and touchdowns during his hey-day, blocking was farther down his list of merits. But this season the hard-nosed veteran has thrown himself head-first, so to speak, into the job of opening holes for Cadillac Williams and Michael Pittman, and the results have been impressive.
"He's played really well," said Head Coach Jon Gruden. "I think the thing that is being missed is how well he's playing fullback. I think a real amount of credit needs to be given to him as a fullback, as a lead blocker, as a pass receiver, and as a runner inside the five, four, three, goal line region. He's as good as I've ever been around."
Gruden has praised Alstott repeatedly this season, usually for his blocking. Crowds at Raymond James Stadium have clamored for more handoffs to their long-time favorite, and they've certainly gotten their wish around the goal line. Alstott is sure to remain a complementary player to Williams in the open field in terms of carrying the ball, but he has been far from minimized in the Bucs' attack. In fact, he's as important as ever, thanks to his rugged blocking and strong work in the passing game.
And, maybe, that will get him back to the Pro Bowl. As a fullback.