The offense and the facility are new to RB Warrick Dunn, but the uniform and the expectations are not
Though his role in the offense has yet to be fully defined – third-down back? occasional featured runner? jack-of-all-trades? – Warrick Dunn did come back to Tampa with a plan.
The plan has less to do with the number of carries he will have in the future and more to do with an opportunity he missed out in the past.
By leaving the Tampa Bay Buccaneers via free agency after the 2001 season, Dunn gave up a chance to be featured in the offense of one Jon Gruden, the head coach the team hired just weeks before Dunn's departure. Dunn had great success in Atlanta, of course, but Gruden and the Buccaneers advanced all the way to the Super Bowl champions podium in San Diego in 2002. Along the way, Gruden's intense on-field persona became very well-known, especially to a rival playing just a state away and in the Buccaneers' own division.
As Dunn knows, Gruden said in 2002 and has said many times since that he would have liked to have kept the lightning-quick back around to play in his system. Dunn is looking forward to that chance now, six years later, but he's also eager to get under his new coach's skin a little bit.
"Hopefully I can bring the old 'Chucky' out and make him crazy," said Dunn during the Bucs' organized team activity days this past week.
That may not be exactly what Gruden had in mind when he said this, just a week before during the owners' meetings in Palm Beach: "We'll find something for Warrick to do, that's for sure."
Those who remember Dunn's demeanor know that he would have had a devilish little smile playing around his lips during that previous comment. Dunn isn't loud, and in some ways – especially when it comes to community service – he is very serious, but he also likes to have a little fun. With little left to prove in his stellar, 12-year NFL career, Dunn seems as if he's expecting his second go-around in a Buccaneer uniform to be a great time.
"I think over the years I've accomplished a lot," he said. "Of course you're going to have doubters, so I think with myself I just use that as motivation. It's a challenge. I'm just going to go out and have fun and play well.
"This team is young; it's very talented. After what they did last year, I think they can build off that. Hopefully I can just add to it and be a positive force for them."
Dunn is just getting to know his new teammates; only Ronde Barber and Derrick Brooks were around when he last put on the red and pewter. More importantly, he's in the early stages of absorbing Gruden's complicated offense. That part might not be a ton of fun at this point.
"I have to pick up the offense first, just get comfortable and see what happens," said Dunn. "Today they threw the book at us and I just tried to pick it up well, but I know in this offense I'm going to be able to catch some more balls. All those rumors that [Gruden] stays up late, comes to work early…I mean he's doing a lot on offense but I think the way that he calls it and how he tries to install it, he tries to make it simple but it's impossible. You just have to get out there and run around with it.
Dunn alludes to what most assume will be his primary task in the Bucs' offense this time around: catching the football out of the backfield. There is no doubt he can handle that assignment, as he has 463 catches for 4,009 yards in his NFL career. The Falcons didn't make extensive use of that talent in the last two years, as Dunn caught 59 balls in 2006 and 2007 combined. In his last season as a Buccaneer, he had 68 receptions.
"I hadn't caught a lot of balls the last few years," said the eighth-leading receiver in franchise history. "I'm going to be able to be used in the passing game and hopefully that helps us."
Dunn caught 259 passes in his five years (51.8 per year) as a Buccaneer. The man who could be considered his replacement beginning in 2002, Michael Pittman, caught 284 passes over the last six seasons (47.3 per year). Clearly, there is a place for a pass-catching back like Dunn in Gruden's attack.
However, Gruden maintains that his newest back can help the team in more than one way.
"I look at the film of Warrick Dunn, and he still had 800 yards of rushing last year," said Gruden. "He caught the ball effortlessly out of the backfield. He's one of the great NFL men that we have in the league. He is a threat. He can run it and catch it, he can pick up a blitz – I love him. I've always liked him."
He does now, at least. Of course, Dunn has yet to inspire his first Chucky appearance.