RB Warrick Dunn has put up more combined rushing and receiving yards in the last four weeks than any other NFL player
There weren't a lot of happy people inhabiting One Buccaneer Place on November 20.
A day earlier, the Bucs had lost, 13-10, at Chicago and the repercussions of the defeat still echoed in the building. By dropping the Bucs back to 6-5 and dealing them a damaging intra-division loss, the game had somehow obliterated the good work of a three-game winning streak. Though five weeks remained, the Bucs suddenly believed they had to 'run the table' to ensure a playoff spot.
Furthermore, FB Mike Alstott and S John Lynch had been injured on the cold Soldier Field turf, and the team was unsure when either would be back.
Thanksgiving was three days away, and many Bucs probably had difficulty summoning up work-related things to be thankful for.
As it turns out, there was one right under their noses: Warrick Dunn.
Since that humbling defeat in the Windy City, the Bucs have indeed run the table, at least the first four balls, and Dunn has been at the very center of the resurgence. That only makes sense for a player whose game is, in his teammates' opinion, all heart.
"I think he plays more with heart than anything else," said guard Frank Middleton, who's certainly well-versed in Dunn's more tangible talents. There are the spin moves that defy tackles, the darting pass routes that confound linebackers, the speed and quickness that allow him to reach the corner on sweeps.
But Middleton sees the heart. And the toughness.
"He takes the hit and just keeps on ticking," said Middleton. "People try to talk to him and hit him harder, but it seems like it doesn't hurt him. It just makes him run a little harder. That's good for the team, because we see him get hit and get up and we'll think, that's a little 180-pounder. If he can take it, I can take it. He fires us up a lot. He's the person on the team that really gets the offense going."
For years, Buccaneers fans have screamed to see the former Florida State star used more on the edges, rather than up the middle, where Tampa Bay's offense usually sent him on his 10-12 carries a game. Turns out, he's equally adept at both, he just needed a full share of carries to get his whole game going.
Against the St. Louis Rams last Monday, Dunn somehow managed not to get overshadowed by a four-touchdown performance by his running back counterpart, Marshall Faulk. Faulk found the end zone once more than Dunn, but the Buccaneer back gained more rushing yards (145-90), more overall yards (198-143) and more game-turning plays.
And not all of his big plays went to the outside. One play, in particular, might be forgotten amid his pitch-back to QB Shaun King, his 52-yard touchdown run and his game-winning TD dive.
After St. Louis had taken a 7-3 lead in the first quarter, the Bucs drove down into Rams territory and earned a first down at the 13. King then flipped a quick screen pass to Dunn on the right side, and Dunn immediately took it upfield. He was hit squarely at the five-yard line, knocked hard enough by several Rams defenders to pop his helmet right off his head. Unfazed, Dunn kept his legs churning, pulled off one more spin as he was headed to the ground and picked up three more yards to the two. Helmet off, he pounded the ground at the two, perhaps fired up because of his bravado, perhaps irritated that he hadn't reached the end zone. He would on the next play, a simple sweep around the left side.
The helmet-popping play served early notice that Dunn was in it for the long haul. The same can be said of the Bucs' chase for the Super Bowl. Dunn has been the driving force in consecutive wins over Buffalo, Dallas, Miami and St. Louis and he is showing no signs of slowing down. The 5-8, 180-pound water bug just might be the workhorse the Bucs need to ride deep into the playoffs.
"He's just an incredibly tough player," said S John Lynch. "In my mind, the last seven, eight weeks – I don't know when it exactly it started, but there was a point you could see him start running a little faster, a little quicker. He's been as good as anyone in the league."
Most likely, Dunn has come on too late to draw any NFL MVP votes, Lynch's endorsement notwithstanding. But he could definitely be considered the most important figure in the Bucs' rousing, four-game winning streak.
In those four games, Dunn has rushed 92 times for 520 yards and seven touchdowns, averaging a potent 5.7 yards per carry. At the same time, he's added 171 yards on 14 receptions, giving him 691 yards during the Bucs' four-game streak, or 173 yards per game.
Those 691 combined yards are the most by any player over the last four weeks. The only two NFLers who come close are Denver's Mike Anderson (687) and Seattle's Ricky Watters (650). The only players in the league who have scored more touchdowns than Dunn over the past month are Anderson, Faulk and Jacksonville's Fred Taylor, all with eight.
Maybe, as in the case of Anderson in Denver, Dunn just needed full-time exposure to put up numbers such as these all season. That seems to be Middleton's feelings.
"I think he's been running the ball pretty decent the whole year," said Middleton. "He'd get 12 carries for 89 yards, whatever (early in the season). I thought he came into the season running the ball really well, he just wasn't getting the 20-25 touches he needed to go over the 100-yard mark. I don't know, I don't really keep an eye on his stats, but to me, he's come through all year."
Lynch has a feel for what Buccaneer opponents are going through, having waged some 60-minute battles with future Hall of Fame running back Barry Sanders. Back in the limelight, Dunn is again drawing some Sanders comparisons – just as he did as a rookie in 1997 – for his ability to turn a sure loss into some sort of gain.
Lynch knows Sanders was so difficult to get a clean hit on that he considers the one all-out shot he got on the former Lion to be the best hit of his career. He sees some of the same trait in Dunn, but still steers the conversation back to the little back's toughness and heart.
"Yes, but I also think that Warrick is a little different in that, occasionally, when there's a need, he'll jam it in there and go for the tough yards," said Lynch of the Sanders comparison. "Like the other day, when his helmet came off. Even then, when he's doing that, he's spinning, moving. He's one of those guys that are tough to get a good hit on. A lot of that is his leverage. He's low and he's just a strong, put-together guy. He's effective in what he does."
The Bucs need him to be effective one more day in the regular season in order to knock the last ball of the table. It's a tough one, though: at Green Bay in the dead of winter. It most definitely will take a tough player to excel in the conditions awaiting the Buccaneers in Wisconsin.
But Dunn has had a good amount of success at Lambeau Field.
In his first game there as a rookie in '97, Dunn needed just 16 carries to rack up 125 yards as he and Alstott helped the Bucs' amass 217 total rushing yards. A breakaway 44-yard scamper set up his own two-yard touchdown run that brought the Bucs within five in the fourth quarter, but Tampa Bay couldn't complete the comeback and lost, 21-16.
When the Bucs went back to Lambeau in January for a Divisional Playoff Game, this time in freezing temperatures, Dunn was again the key component in the Bucs' offense. He carried 18 times for 64 yards and caught two passes for 34 more.
The next year, Green Bay managed to hold the Bucs to just 50 rushing yards and Dunn to 36 on 12 carries, but the Bucs' back added 46 yards on seven receptions. In 1999, he was again a run/pass threat, combining for 90 yards on 14 carries and six receptions.
Clearly, this is a man who can handle the atmosphere and the atmospheric pressure in Green Bay. That he can handle anything the Bucs want him to do should be coming as less and less of a surprise. The ranks of Dunn's doubters continue to dwindle as the Buccaneer back shows more and more of his greatest asset.