Warrick Dunn, the team's receptions leader in 1999, should remain a key part of the Bucs' passing attack in 2000
Warrick Dunn and Mike Alstott may not look much like Mel Gibson and Danny Glover, but together they form one of the NFL's most lethal weapons, and they're ready to churn out their fourth straight hit in the fall of 2000.
Though they've been working side by side for three years, Dunn and Alstott keep seeing their roles shift from year to year, and that is likely to happen again this season. With new Offensive Coordinator Les Steckel in town with a revamped offense and Pro Bowl wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson added to the attack, the Bucs' backfield may be ready to show off its versatility more than ever before.
That was evident during the team's recent four-week stretch of voluntary workouts, when Alstott and Dunn lined up in a variety of formations and seemed heavily involved in the passing game. Of course, that's nothing new in Tampa Bay.
"I think we'll do some different things with Warrick (in the passing game), and some different things with Mike," said Head Coach Tony Dungy. "I don't think they'll be a bigger part of it, but I think it will be a little bit different. I think we'll be able to utilize their skills, and we're looking forward to doing that.
"These guys can catch the ball out of the backfield, and we already have some things in to take advantage of that. There are some times where they will be flanked out, yes."
Even so, that begs the question of which will be the primary target out of the backfield, or whether both will be used in that manner. And are there enough passes to go around if that's the case. Looking at Alstott and Dunn's receiving numbers side by side, it's clear that the Bucs have yet to devise a way to keep them both heavily involved at the same time.
On the other hand, this chart also shows that both Alstott and Dunn are very capable receivers. Both have taken a turn as the team's leading receiver, though Alstott's 65-catch first season (a Tampa Bay rookie record) has given way to three straight campaigns in the 20s while Dunn has steadily risen to his 64-reception year in 1999. It was a tradeoff for Dunn last year, as his high receptions total was offset by a dip in his rushing yards; not coincidentally, Alstott's carries and yards rose for the fourth straight year.
Dungy has insisted that the Bucs offense will continue to be centered around this dynamic pair, even with the addition of Johnson. He doesn't mind revealing that because Alstott and Dunn, despite the up-and-down rushing and receiving totals, have been remarkably consistent producers as a collaboration. Discounting Alstott's rookie year, before the arrival of Dunn, here are the combined total yardage totals of those two during their three years together: 2,283...2,368...2,393.
Total Yards and Touchdowns
The other element of that table is the individual touchdown totals for those two, and the trend there is just as evident. Despite Dunn's high rookie TD total, Alstott is clearly the team's choice near the goal line. This should not be looked at as a negative aspect of Dunn's play, according to Dungy.
"Not really, because in the three years that he's been here, we emphasize Mike when we get down close," he said. "So Warrick pretty much has to score on the longer runs. Barry Sanders has had years like that, where he's had 1,700 yards and five touchdowns. But if he puts the ball down close, we feel like we've got guys that can put it in there."
Dunn got seven of his 11 career touchdowns as a 1997 rookie largely because he didn't give the team a chance to hand the ball to someone else, scoring on very long runs and receptions. In fact, five of his seven scores came from 24 yards out or further, and he had seven plays that covered more than 40 yards. That element to the Bucs' attack has been missing in recent seasons, but Dungy hopes to see it return in 2000 with the addition of Johnson and a new emphasis on downfield blocking.
"We think our receivers are doing a great job in this camp of blocking downfield," said Dungy near the end of the voluntary workouts, "and I think that's going to help us score from farther out. We'd like to have some 25-30 yard touchdown runs."
Of the two backs, Alstott is the more likely to see his role significantly changed in 2000. Steckel's attack is more diverse in its formations than the Bucs' previous offense, and it makes great use of a tight ends and H-backs. The 248-pound Alstott, who ranks as one of the NFL's most powerful runners, has the skills to fit in to a variety of those slots.
It's actually two spots," said Dungy of Alstott's place in the offense, "but those two spots do a lot of things: the fullback and the H-back. He'll get a chance to move around. I think we'll be able to throw him the ball more, much like we did our rookie year (as a coaching staff), and hopefully get him into the open field with the ball a little bit. And he's also going to be the runner in certain formations. I think it will be a good fit for Mike."
Still, doesn't the presence of the 6-4 Johnson and his glue-like hands tempt Dungy to chuck the running game and put the ball in the air all day? Might the Bucs back down from their 51% - 49% run-pass ratio of 1999, the most run-oriented attack in the league?
"If it was me, I'd like to be 99-1 running the ball because that means we're ahead and closing the game out," said Dungy. "But no, we're going to throw the ball and we like our quarterbacks. We like our receivers, but we still have two very good backs. In this day and age, if you run 30 times a game, you're very much a run offense. Nobody else in the league is doing that. But we feel we've got backs that we need to get the ball. Between Mike and Warrick, they need 30 carries a game. We're going to be what the league would call a running team, but if we throw it well and throw it effectively I think we can move the ball and score points."