The familiar sight of Warick Dunn in a Buccaneers jersey will be on display again in 2008
Jon Gruden's first year as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Head Coach couldn't have gone much better, as his team captured the Super Bowl XXXVII title at the end of a magical 2002 campaign. Obviously, the Bucs made all the right moves that year.
Still, earlier in the calendar year, Gruden did profess one regret: That the Buccaneers were unable to retain free agent running back Warrick Dunn. An unrestricted free agent who had played his first five seasons in Tampa, Dunn signed a hefty contract with the Atlanta Falcons, one the Bucs were in no position to top.
Gruden believed Dunn could be a dangerous weapon in his offense. Six years later, he finally has a chance to find out. At the end of a very busy Monday on the free agent market, the Buccaneers signed the 12th-year running back to a new contract, a week after he was released by the Falcons.
As is team policy, details of Dunn's deal were not released.
The Buccaneers continued to plug holes and build depth all across their roster during the second week of free agency. In addition to bringing Dunn back into the fold, the team also used Monday to sign pass-catching tight end Ben Troupe, formerly of the Tennessee Titans, and athletic receiver Antonio Bryant, most recently of the San Francisco 49ers.
Dunn's departure after the 2001 season didn't prove damaging to the Buccaneers' playoff hopes or the running back's own career. Tampa Bay captured three division titles in the next six years while Dunn annually put up big numbers for the Falcons. Late last year, he became the 22nd player in NFL history to reach the 10,000-yard rushing mark.
Still the reunion surely pleases both sides. Dunn was one of the most popular players on the team during his first tenure in Tampa, attracting fans with big plays on the field and a devotion to community service off it. Dunn's Homes for the Holidays program, which has been helping single mothers purchase houses for a decade, originated in the Bay area.
Dunn was in Tampa last weekend to attend Mike Alstott's retirement party at Raymond James Stadium. The Bucs couldn't talk to him about his career then, but when the Falcons subsequently released Dunn on Monday after signing former San Diego Chargers running back Michael Turner, the Bucs wasted little time in bringing him for a discussion. A week later, a deal was finalized and Dunn will be back in pewter and red.
How Tampa Bay's running back stable will eventually shake out is still to be seen, in part due to Cadillac Williams' attempt to come back from a significant knee injury suffered last September. However, the group boasts impressive depth, with three backs who have posted 1,000-yard rushing seasons in the NFL – Dunn, Williams and Michael Bennett. In addition, running back Earnest Graham put up 800 yards in roughly two-thirds of a season in the starting role last year.
In his second stint with the team, Dunn might be a good fit as a third-down back, though his ability to run between the tackles has long been underrated. Dunn measures in at "just" 5-9 and 180 pounds, but he has long been one of the league's toughest players. Both the Buccaneers and the Falcons employed him as a primary, every-down back, though he frequently split time with Alstott during his Buc tenure.
In fact, Dunn is the third-leading rusher in Tampa Bay history, racking up 4,200 yards on 1,070 carries from 1997-2001. He trails only Alstott (5,088 yards) and James Wilder (5,957) in that category. Dunn also ranks as one of the most productive pass-catchers in Buccaneer annals, ranking seventh on the team's all-time list with 259 grabs for 2,374 yards and nine touchdowns.
The Buccaneers originally drafted Dunn with the 12th overall pick in 1997. He was an immediate hit, posting two 100-yard rushing efforts in his first three regular-season games en route to a Pro Bowl berth. Dunn's rookie output included 978 rushing yards, a team-leading 39 catches and seven total touchdowns, and he was named AP's NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year.
He first broke the 1,000-yard mark the following season, leading a potent Buccaneers rushing attack (134.3 yards per game) with 1,026 yards. In 1999, Dunn ceded the rushing lead to Alstott but again led the team with 64 receptions, four shy of the career high of 68 he would set in 2001. In between, Dunn posted his best rushing total as a Buccaneer in 2000, gaining 1,133 yards on 248 carries. His 4.6 yards per tote and eight touchdowns that season were both high-water marks for his five seasons in Tampa.
Dunn is the only tailback in team history to make two Pro Bowl trips, having also made the all-star game after the 2000 season. He later added a third Pro Bowl nod during his time in Atlanta.
Over six seasons with the Falcons, Dunn broke the 1,000-yard rushing mark three times, peaking at 1,416 yards in 2005. During that span, he averaged 1,004 rushing yards, 34 receptions and six total touchdowns per year. Atlanta had the NFL's top-ranked rushing attack in 2004, 2005 and 2006.