When both FB Mike Alstott (left) and RB Warrick Dunn are effective, the Bucs' offensive attack usually works well
In 1997, Warrick Dunn's rookie season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Mike Alstott's second campaign, the team struck what seemed to be the perfect balance in their offensive backfield.
As the team drove to its first playoff berth in 15 years, Dunn rushed for 978 yards and Alstott added 665. Dunn picked up 4.4 yards per carry to Alstott's 3.8, but the big fullback posted the higher touchdown total, 10 to 7. The rookie added 39 receptions, the sophomore 23.
Thunder & Lightning was born, or WD-40, if you prefer. Both backs made the Pro Bowl that year; both had strong playoff showings.
Since that first year together, however, Alstott and Dunn have worked in such a balanced way only on occasion, never again for an entire season. Alstott has made three more Pro Bowls and Dunn one more, and both rank very high on the team's career rushing, receiving and scoring charts, but there have seemingly been struggles, at times, to get maximum production out of both.
And so the prevailing opinion on which back should be carrying the load has swung back and forth surprisingly often. Memories have been short; sometimes, patience has been, too.
Except, perhaps, at One Buccaneer Place, where patience is always in thick supply with Tony Dungy in the corner office. Regarding the 'Alstott and Dunn Issue,' as it is presented to him several times a season, the Bucs' head coach has consistently chosen to take the long-range view rather than obsess over which back is coming off the best game or the best month.
At the moment, Alstott seems to be finding more success than Dunn, at least in the last two games. The bigger back has 90 yards on just 16 carries over the past two weekends, compared to 45 yards on 27 carries for Dunn. Against Detroit on Sunday, Alstott picked up 66 yards on 12 carries while Dunn's six runs produced only three yards (Dunn did add 54 yards on nine receptions).
"It just kind of worked out better for Mike (against Detroit), but we've got to get both of them going down the stretch," said Dungy on Monday. "So we will look at some different things.
"We'll probably look at everything and try to come up with a way that we can (succeed), whether it's spreading people out for Warrick, whether it's playing him behind Jameel (Cook) to get him a little more room. He had six carries and things happened on his. Mike got some holes, we blocked some things well, got some different looks from them when Mike and Jameel were in there."
One of those holes produced a quick-developing, 24-yard touchdown run for Alstott. It was a product, Dungy hinted, of the Bucs hitting one of the Lions' many defensive-line stunts at just the right time and place. Dunn's moments weren't so fortunate, such as one snap in which a mistaken call in the huddle led to the play's failure.
"It just didn't happen for him yesterday," said Dungy. "He didn't get a lot of carries, and some of the times we had them in there, we had some run-checks with passes and the looks they gave us caused us to go to passes. Other times on his six carries there just wasn't much there. It was just one of those days, and hopefully he'll be better this week, but he didn't have a lot of opportunities."
Dungy remains convinced that the Bucs can get both Alstott and Dunn on track in the same game – that, in fact, the team is best off when just that occurs, such as in St. Louis three games ago, when they combined for 94 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 25 carries. Five years with the WD-40 duo has taught him to stick by both backs and reap the eventual rewards.
Still, even with such a long-range view, Dungy has to concede that factors can sometimes arise to temporarily limit the effectiveness of one back or the other. Dunn's ongoing struggle with a foot sprain could be one of those factors, as could an offensive line that has failed to block consistently at times.
Such considerations probably played into the team's decision prior to Sunday's game to run Alstott behind rookie FB Jameel Cook 12 to 15 times in the game. When that scheme showed more promise than Dunn behind Alstott as the game developed, the team stuck with it, as much as the game situation would allow.
"We decided that we were going to have some sets with him in there, and that's how we ended up running the ball more effectively, so we stayed with it," said Dungy.
Next up for the Bucs is the 9-3 Chicago Bears in Soldier Field. Tampa Bay threw 56 passes against Chicago in Raymond James Stadium a month ago, but foul conditions in Soldier Field might render that approach ineffective. The running game should be at a premium.
"I think we're going to need (an effective running game) down the stretch in all four of these games," said Dungy. "We did some good things on the ground in the first half (against Detroit) and just didn't get that many opportunities and didn't get the job done in the second half. We've got to build on that, keep that going and look at what we did in the first half and see if we can build on it."
For Dungy, that means getting both Dunn and Alstott going, so he wasn't willing to say that the team would turn primarily to Alstott in Chicago. However, he did indicate later in the day on Monday that foul weather in Soldier Field could, in fact, lead him to commit to a bigger backfield of Cook and Alstott more often.
On the other hand, Dungy can point to the Bucs' last three trips to Chicago, all on November 19 or later. In 1998, Dunn ran for 62 yards on 22 carries in Soldier Field; in 1999, he posted 80 yards on 16 carries; in 2000, he was good for 75 yards on 17 carries. Alstott also had good days against the Bears in '98 and '99 but was injured early in that 2000 Chicago contest.
Of course, it was that injury last November 19, so seemingly devastating to the Bucs' playoff-race hopes at the time, that paved the way for Dunn's remarkable stretch run last season. The 5-8 speedster had not done much to that point in the season to stand out in a crowd, but he took over the ground game over the last six weeks and eventually ended up in the Pro Bowl.
It's memories of that sort that keep Dungy from writing off Dunn.
"He'll be fine," said Dungy. "We just have to keep working on our running game. We've got to fine-tune it, and keep it going and not give up on it. Those guys know how important it is in December, and they'll keep working to do that. Warrick has had some times where it hasn't all clicked in the past, but he's always come through for us, and we anticipate him doing so again."
Similarly, Dungy feels confident that Alstott will come through when needed. The big back didn't play much in the 2001 preseason thanks to a hamstring injury and had just eight carries in the Bucs' first two games this season, but when Dunn couldn't play against Green Bay in Week Three, Alstott turned in 77 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries. Three weeks later, Dunn was out against Minnesota and Alstott exploded for 129 yards and three scores.
"We still have some work to do in the run game," said Dungy. "We've shown some signs. We got Mike going a little bit and we've got to see what we can do to get Warrick going."