RB Warrick Dunn looks familiar in a Bucs uniform but the team's offense is new to him
Who was that running back early this offseason, the one who looked a bit like a rookie, making a few mistakes with the playbook and trying to figure out his new teammates names? He looked familiar for some reason. He was wearing jersey No. 28, wasn't he?
That familiar face and uniform belong to Warrick Dunn, back in Tampa for a second go-round after playing for the Buccaneers from 1997-2001 and the Atlanta Falcons for the past six years. While some things have remained the same since Dunn last wore the pewter and red, much has changed – such as the playbook and most of the names listed on the roster. But Dunn says his comfort level is increasing on a daily basis.
"This is my first time playing for Coach [Jon] Gruden, so I have had to learn the playbook from scratch, like any rookie that comes in," Dunn said. "The main thing is coming in and getting repetitions and getting comfortable with it. I don't really make many mistakes more like I did early on. I just understand football and I think that Coach Gruden can see that I am in the right place. It is a matter of taking the right steps and being in the right place at the right time."
Dunn and Gruden missed the chance to work together six years ago. Gruden came to Tampa from the Raiders in the spring of 2002, but Dunn left as a free agent just a few weeks later.
Now that they have been reunited, both are excited about the opportunity to finally be a part of the same offense. Dunn knows that Gruden has frequently referred to him as the one that got away.
"I have heard that ever since I left Tampa, and Coach Gruden always greeted me and told me how he thought I was a great player," Dunn said. "Now he has the opportunity to coach me and hopefully put me in positions to be successful, but I have to do my part as well and play well."
Dunn was released by the Falcons earlier this offseason, as he had requested, after which he sat down to weigh his options. Did the possibility of a return trip to Tampa ever cross his mind?
"Honestly, I never thought I would be back," Dunn said. "If Cadillac [Williams] had not blew his knee out, would I be here? I don't think I would. Things happen for a reason. The reason I left six years ago was not because I wanted to leave, it was the circumstances. Now that I have an opportunity to come back, I am going to enjoy the moment.
"I have always loved the city of Tampa and its fans. When I have come back to play in the city I have always been greeted with hospitality and I am grateful for that. It is great to be playing with guys that I have admired in [Derrick] Brooks and [Ronde] Barber and for a coach that I have always wondered if I could be successful in his offense. Now the challenge comes for us to be successful together."
The opportunity to play a role in Gruden's offense was indeed another of the factors that convinced Dunn to return to the Bucs. What, and how big exactly, that role will turn out to be is uncertain just yet, but all Dunn wants is a chance.
"All I know is I am going to touch the football," Dunn said. "One of the things I wanted when Atlanta released me was to be involved. This is a fresh start and Coach Gruden wants to get me involved in both facets, the running game and the passing game. I am looking forward to getting to the games and getting involved."
The reason a clear-cut niche for Dunn has yet to be determined is the corps of talented backs the Bucs possess. Despite the versatile group of runners and the numbers game the coaches will have to play as they split up the carries, Dunn is proud to be a part of the group.
"I have been around a lot longer than the two other guys [Michael Bennett and Earnest Graham]," Dunn said. "I thought Earnest did a great job last season expanding his role with the team. I think he wants his role to expand like any back. If you are hungry and want to play you would have that mentality like any back would.
"[Graham] is more of a pounder, but Michael [Bennett], if you give him some space he can make something happen because his speed is tremendous. Hopefully I can complement those guys and make them better, not only on the field but off as well when it comes to studying film and picking up on things in a meeting. If I can help those guys advance their careers I am doing my part as a veteran."
Along with the solid group of rushers, a young, physical offensive line is another reason Dunn believes the Bucs could field a potent ground game in 2008.
"I think that the offensive line is very talented, but they have not proven anything yet," Dunn said. "Right now it's all talk, so I expect those guys to have a chip on their shoulders and go out and play hard and play well. If they can do that they're going to open up lanes. I don't care who is behind there running, they could average four to five yards a carry and that is what people are already saying. Proof has to be a part of this talk and if they do that we are going to be a good football team."
So let's take a look at Dunn's situation – familiar surroundings, experienced coach, a formidable rotation of fellow backs and a potentially-dominant offensive line. Could things get any better?
"I was comfortable with the city and knew I did not have to find a place to live," Dunn said. "I knew the community and the direction this team was going based on their success from last year. We are a team on the verge and I want to be a part of that. I want to be a champion. I missed my opportunity to win a Super Bowl, but now I want to be a part of some big games."
The fact that the biggest of big games this coming February will be played in the Bucs' backyard isn't lost on Dunn either.
"It is a coincidence that the Super Bowl is Tampa, but there is so much that comes with a season that we can only take it one week at a time," Dunn said. "We have to continue to improve and get better on offense then hopefully we would have that opportunity to play in that game.
"For myself, I have been so much through the last few years; I just want to get to the playoffs. Hopefully, if we stay healthy we can make things happen and give ourselves an opportunity. Playing the Super Bowl in Tampa would be fitting, a fairy tale ending."