RB Warrick Dunn is averaging over five yards a carry in his first season back as a Buccaneer
Running backs in the NFL often have short shelf lives – taking a beating on play after play wears them down more quickly than almost anyone else on the field.
Thus, to see a 12th-year veteran running with the same fresh legs, quickness and dazzling moves he displayed even as a young player can be a surprise.
A perfect example of such a surprise: Tampa Bay Buccaneers' veteran back Warrick Dunn, who rejoined the Bucs this offseason after a six-year stint in Atlanta and hasn't skipped a beat.
"I feel good," Dunn said. "I think over the years I've done a good job of taking care of my body and maintaining it so that I can always play at a high level. But I probably have surprised some people a little bit at the fact that I can still play at a high level and be productive. God has given me some abilities and He's given me a gift that I'm just using to the best of my abilities."
As impressed as some outsiders may be that he is continuing to produce, Dunn expects nothing less of himself.
"No, I'm not surprised," Dunn said. "I believe in myself. I always have. Sometimes people look at what you did the year before as your last play. Last year was a tough year for me and the Falcons overall, but I'm in a different situation, a new environment and I feel good."
In a testament to his durability and playmaking ability, Dunn cracked the top 20 in the NFL's all-time rushing list during the game in Denver. True to his humble nature, however, Dunn spread the credit around for his success.
"You have to credit the offensive line," Dunn said. "Those guys have really been doing a good job of knowing who they've got, getting on their guys and creating seams for us. As backs, we pretty much just want to try to break through the first tier and hopefully make guys miss in the open field.
"But everybody's doing a great job – the tight ends are doing a great job of sealing their guys, the receivers are going in and cracking on safeties. They're giving us opportunities and we're taking advantage of it."
Through five games in 2008, Dunn has rushed 53 times for 271 yards (a 5.1 yards-per-carry average) and has scored one touchdown.
Along with running mate Earnest Graham, Dunn has helped the Bucs to the eighth-best ground attack in the league, averaging 5.3 yards per carry and over 134 yards per game.
Head Coach Jon Gruden has frequently remarked how impressive the relationship is between his top two backs. It amazes him that both Dunn and Graham care more about their backfield mate's success more than their own.
But Dunn says the chemistry – and on-field success – he and Graham have enjoyed comes down to one simple thing.
"For us, it's just wins – wins and losses," Dunn said. "I think Earnest will tell you the same thing. We'll do anything to win a football game. If we're not going to have a lot of carries, as long as we win, we're not going to say anything. If we're losing football games, hopefully we look back and say if we would have ran the football a little more or done something different, than we could have helped this team win a game.
"Both of us, we just care about winning and the most important thing is helping the team move forward. When you lose a game it's tough, because you feel like you left it on the field. Our running styles are different, but I think we both have mentalities that we just want to win. We say that every game before we go out. We just want to figure out a way to win the football game. If we have an impact on that, then so be it. But as long as we get Ws, that's all that really matters."
Dunn also credited his rejuvenation this season to a return to the familiar settings in Tampa. After a highly productive stint as a Buccaneer from 1997-2001, returning to Tampa for the latter part of his career has given Dunn a fresh outlook.
"I just wanted to come back and have fun," Dunn said. "I've played a long time, I've had a good career for a lot of years playing the running back position. I would say for myself, just coming back and contributing and having an impact on the game is important. But just having fun, you have to go out and just leave it on the field. It's a kid's game, so I'm just trying to have fun."
For a man intent on having fun on the gridiron, Sunday's contest will be a treat. The Carolina Panthers, a bitter NFC South rival, come to town with first place on the line, and Dunn said it's a matchup he's looking forward to intensely.
"I just think it's two teams that don't like each other," Dunn said with a smile. "Division foes are always tough and when you have an opportunity to play for first place and knock someone off in the division, the game is big. It's a big game for us, and those guys are playing well. They're talented. But this rivalry is alive and well, as well as any other rivalry in this league."
As he walked off the practice field earlier in the week, Dunn fielded one last question before heading into the locker room. After reflecting on his remarkable career and the enjoyment he's trying to squeeze out of these last few years as a pro, Dunn was asked if he had anything else left to accomplish.
"Super Bowl," Dunn said without hesitation. "I want to be a champion. I think for me, going into these last few years of my career, I'm playing to be a champion – not just to add on to stats.
"You want to play well. Who doesn't want to break records? But my ultimate goal is to be a champion. We all play for that. You dream about it as a kid. That's what you play this game for."