Anyone who witnessed a Tampa Bay Buccaneers practice in person in 2012 heard one puzzling word repeated over and over, perhaps even more often than "hut" or "again."
The word was "chin," and it was always directed at a player who had just gotten his hands on the football. The goal was greater football security. The results were obvious and immediate.
In their first year at One Buccaneer Place, Head Coach Greg Schiano and his staff made a very pointed effort to teach Buccaneer ballcarriers a better way to carry the rock. One simple phrase – "the ball" – was repeated often to emphasize that possessing and protecting the football was an absolutely fundamental aspect of winning games.
The typical way one envisions a player carrying a football is with it almost horizontal across his chest, protected by the forearm. Schiano's crew demanded that players carry the football in an almost vertical manner, with one point in the crook of the elbow and the other almost directly under the chin. Thus that word…anyone who didn't immediately and instinctively tuck the ball under his chin heard about it immediately, until it did become instinct.
The coaches' fanatical attention to this detail was well worth it. In 16 games this past season, the Bucs fumbled just 16 times, and lost only six of them. That was a massive improvement over the 2011 season, during which the team fumbled 27 times and lost 15 of them. Even in the superior 10-win season of 2010, the Bucs fumbled 24 times and lost 13 of them.
In fact, after just one offseason and training camp to try to change the team culture, Schiano and company nearly helped the team set a record for holding onto the ball. The fewest fumbles the Buccaneers have ever lost in a single season was five, in 2009.
It helped that the player who was tackled far more often than any other Buccaneer was extremely good at protecting the football. Amid everything else Doug Martin accomplished as a rookie to suggest a very bright future, there was also this: He only put the ball on the ground once, and even that one was a hair-thin call by the referee. Martin accounted for 319 of the team's 416 carries and also caught 49 passes, nearly racking up 2,000 combined yards in the process. That last number rightfully got the most attention, but it may have overshadowed how dependable Martin was, too.
"One thing that's lost with Doug is something that Coach Schiano and his staff continually stress: 'The ball,'" said General Manager Mark Dominik. "You think about all the touches he had and he had one fumble, at the goal-line against the Carolina Panthers. That's the only time he put the ball on the ground the whole season, and I still think it's up for debate whether that was a fumble or not. You look back and say that's the kind of running back you're so excited to have on your football team. The production he had, the way he carried the ball, how important it is to him."
The fumble in Carolina was reviewed extensively because Martin may or may not have already crossed the goal line when the ball popped free. The call was upheld and Martin chided himself after the game for fumbling, even though his team made a stunning comeback to win in overtime. As Dominik said, not fumbling was something Martin took very seriously, but the team could certainly live with just one all season.
For that matter, just six lost fumbles all season is a number the team can live with. The ultimate goal would be zero, of course, and while that may be unlikely it seems certain that the Buccaneers will continue to protect the football well in the years to come.