Former Cleveland RB Jamel White has proven to be an excellent receiver out of the backfield, which should help him earn playing time in Jon Gruden's offense
Last Friday, one day after signing as a free agent with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Jamel White was touring the suburbs of Tampa, on a house-hunting trip with his fiancée, Jen.
The couple had little luck that first day, but Jamel and Jen still had big smiles on their faces when they swung by team headquarters. That's because, in a larger sense, White thinks he's found a neighborhood that he's really going to like.
"I would love to stay here," said White, contemplating a multi-year commitment in Tampa after finishing four good seasons with the Cleveland Browns. "I just love playing football, and I like Coach (Jon) Gruden's way of doing things."
Part of the Bucs' astounding free agent haul this March, White was signed last Wednesday, the same day the team added former Cincinnati running back Brandon Bennett and nine days after former Raider Charlie Garner joined the club. The sheer volume of arrivals and departures – 18 players have been signed, re-signed or acquired via trade, while seven of the team's own unrestricted free agents have left – might seem to make for a confusing situation in Tampa Bay's locker room. Quite the opposite; White feels as if he knows exactly how he will fit in with the new-look Buccaneers.
And that's a comfort he never quite found in his old neighborhood.
White has nothing negative to say about the Browns or his four years with the team that originally plucked the undrafted free agent off waivers from the Colts in 2000. It's just that, with Cleveland's long search for a true feature back – through Travis Prentice, James Jackson and William Green – there was never a well-defined role for White for an entire season.
"I wasn't exactly sure where I fit into the team," he said. "But coming here, I know exactly where I fit, so I don't have any reason to complain. I'm coming here to do a job for them and I'm going to get the job done."
After hearing Gruden's recruiting pitch, White became convinced that the team would find opportunities for all of its new backs in some sort of rotation.
"You always need running backs, because few running backs stay healthy through the whole year," said the 5-9, 211-pound back. "The way he explained it to me, you're going to need a running-back-by-committee situation. He doesn't want one running back to stay in the game the whole time. I came here because I trust people to tell me the right things, to give me the right kind of coaching, and I'm going to follow through on what they say."
Heading into free agency, Tampa Bay General Manager Bruce Allen expressed his belief that the Bucs' highly-respected coaching staff would have serious drawing power on the open market. The results of the last three weeks appear to have vindicated Allen, as does White's enthusiasm to work with Gruden and company. White really didn't need a lot of convincing upon his arrival in Tampa, as former Cleveland teammates Roman Oben, Rickey Dudley and Greg Spires had already laid the groundwork.
"They told me it was a great place and that Coach Gruden would be straight up with you," said White. "That's all I need. If somebody tells me to do something, I won't try to correct it, I'll correct it. As long as you can tell me what needs to be done, I'll do it."
The Bucs will almost certainly ask White to spell Garner and to produce in the passing game out of the backfield. White proved he could do all of that in 2002 when he ran for 470 yards, averaging 4.4 yards per tote, and caught 63 passes. The Bucs know White is a threat as a receiver; in a 2002 game at Raymond James Stadium, a 17-3 Bucs win over Cleveland, White caught 10 passes while also gaining 38 yards on nine carries.
White's final three games in Cleveland were as a starter after he had 101 yards on just 16 carries in a 26-20 loss to St. Louis on December 8.
Cleveland's offense as a whole struggled to run the ball consistently, however, finishing 20th in the league, which was still four spots higher than the Buccaneers. To address their own ground concerns, the Bucs have signed four new starting-caliber linemen, Todd Steussie, Derrick Deese, Matt O'Dwyer and Matt Stinchcomb. No doubt that has made Tampa an even more attractive destination for running backs.
Not that White needed any more convincing.
"Sure, I'm excited to play behind a new line," he said. "Actually, to be honest with you, I'm excited to play behind any line. I enjoy catching the ball, and I love running the ball, also. I just want to help the team win."
White also wasn't phased by the early acquisition of Garner, who will presumably be the starting back. In fact, the combination of Gruden and Garner gives White an unparalleled opportunity to improve his game.
"I think this will be the best opportunity for me," said White. "I've seen what Coach Gruden has done with different running backs. Charlie Garner's here and he's one of the guys I usually study. I know I can learn so much from him. Still being young in my NFL career, that's what I want to do – learn more about how to play this game."
That's what makes a great neighborhood, after all – the people.