In 1996, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers drafted Mike Alstott early in the second round, and a year later they used a first-round pick on Warrick Dunn.
Not coincidentally, the Buccaneers ranked 11th in the NFL in rushing in 1997, fourth in 1998, 15th in 1999 and ninth in 2000. That marks the only stretch in franchise history in which the offense managed a top-15 mark on the ground for four consecutive seasons, and four of the 11 such finishes the team has recorded overall.
James Wilder still owns the top two single-season rushing totals in team history, with 1,544 in 1984 and 1,300 in 1985, and he is the Bucs' all-time leading rusher. Ricky Bell was the team's first true backfield workhorse, Cadillac Williams had some scintillating stretches between his unfortunate injuries and the likes of Earnest Graham, Reggie Cobb, Errict Rhett and Michael Pittman have had good results, too. The Bucs' rushing attack was never better, however, than in the heyday of the "Thunder & Lightning" pairing of Alstott and Dunn.
There was a more specific element, however, that Alstott and Dunn brought to the Bucs' ground game as a tandem: explosive plays. Each player's skill set included a factor that is essential in creating big running plays. For Dunn, it was his quick burst of speed; for Alstott, it was his ability to keep gaining yards after first contact.
Defining "big plays" on the ground as all carries of 10 or more yards, one finds a spike of such occurrences from 1998 to 2000 for the Buccaneers. In those three years, Tampa Bay ranked ninth, eighth and 13th, respectively, in big plays on the ground, creating either 53 or 54 in each campaign. That's the best stretch of big-play rankings in the running game in team history.
Those are three of the four best years in that category in Buc annals, in fact. However, none of them are at the absolute top of the list. That actually belongs to the 2010 team, which produced 63 big plays on the ground and was the fourth-best team in the entire NFL in that category.
And that's one reason to hope that some much-needed explosiveness will return to the Buccaneers' ground attack in 2012 after a tough season in that regard in 2011. The man most responsible for that explosion of explosiveness in 2010 was then-rookie LeGarrette Blount, and he is about to enter his third NFL season, and the first in which he gets to spend an actual offseason learning Tampa Bay's offense.
Here are two more reasons that the big play may be back in the Bucs' attack this fall: Doug Martin and Michael Smith.
Determined to make a power rushing attack the center of the team's offense under new Head Coach Greg Schiano, the Buccaneers used the 2012 NFL Draft to add Martin and Smith to the backfield along with the returning Blount. Martin, the 31st overall pick in the draft after the Bucs traded back up into the first round to get him, averaged 5.6 yards per carry at Boise State and showed both that quick burst and the ability to bounce off first contact. Smith, a seventh-round pick, has been clocked at 4.32 in the 40-yard dash, averaged 7.1 yards per carry during his time at Utah State and is an excellent pass-catcher.
General Manager Mark Dominik could see both new Buccaneer backs coming up with big plays on the NFL level.
"Those two players specifically bring make-you-miss [moves] with speed, and they have that run-after-contact [ability] that we like as an organization," said Dominik. "They bring big-play ability. They both have really good hands to catch the ball out of the backfield. I think the big thing is those explosive plays, those chunk plays that we want to have, those guys can deliver those when they get an opportunity."
Alstott was technically a fullback and Dunn a tailback when the two were drafted in consecutive years in the '90s. Of course, Alstott spent a lot of time in the backfield as the primary ballcarrier, so there were still varying stretches during their overlapping careers where one or the other was featured more prominently. For the most part, however, they worked well together to form a potent duo. It isn't yet clear whether Blount or Martin will end up with the largest share of carries in 2012, but the Buccaneers believe the two can easily co-exist in the team's rushing attack.
In fact, the drafting of Martin and Smith may be exactly what brings the big plays out of Blount again in 2012. Even during a 2011 season that was difficult for Tampa Bay's offense overall, Blount exhibited an often amazing ability to break tackles…or sometimes just leap clear over the would-be tacklers.
"I think they should complement each other and make each other better," said Dominik. "They're going to push each other for playing time. There's not a running back that doesn't want an extra touch or an extra carry or an extra opportunity. So I think that's why those two will complement each other."
If they do, and if Smith can perhaps add his own flash to the mix, the Buccaneers could end up with their most explosive rushing attack since the Thunder & Lightning days. And that's exactly what Dominik and company are counting on.