Buccaneers General Manager Mark Dominik (right) welcomed Coach of the Year Pat O'Brien and his family to the Atlanta game on Sunday
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers made it clear early in 2009, as new management laid out its direction for the team, that a power running game would be a central part of the plan to restore the franchise's winning ways.
That remained a major point of emphasis throughout the '09 offseason, but when the actual games arrived the Buccaneers had a bit more difficulty sustaining the plan. Tampa Bay finished the 2009 season, its first under Head Coach Raheem Morris, 23rd in the NFL in rushing yards per game (101.7) and 25th in yards per carry (4.0).
Despite those statistics, the Buccaneers weren't exactly mediocre in the ground game; they just weren't consistent. The overall NFL average for rushing yards per game in 2009 was 116.7, and Tampa Bay topped that mark in exactly half of their games. They opened with a 174-yard outing against Dallas and had a combined 310 rushing yards in their back-to-back December wins over Seattle and Green Bay. However, the Bucs also failed to reach 75 rushing yards on five occasions and three times were held below 50.
Some of that had to do with game situations – Tampa Bay faced a lot of sizable first-half deficits in their early games – plus injuries and upheaval at other spots on the depth chart. Still, when it was all said and done, the Bucs failed to see their 2009 running game come together as powerfully as they had planned.
But they also saw no reason to change the plan. The Buccaneers still believe they have the makings of one of the league's best rushing attacks, with a young and athletic offensive line, multiple proven tailbacks and a team-wide commitment to hard-nosed football. Thus that point of emphasis will return in the 2010 offseason.
The Buccaneers still want to run the ball first and build their play-action passing game off that. They still want their defense to win the turnover battle and wear down their opponents. Overall, they want to play a tougher brand of football than their opponent each week, and that is hard to do without a consistently effective rushing attack.
"It's simple," said Morris. "When you talk about progress, you're talking about who are we, our identity, and I think we found out in that two-week stretch when we went on a winning streak. It was run the football, pound the rock. It's limited turnovers. Our defense is playing hard, playing fast, playing physical, being assignment-detailed and not giving up touchdowns and forcing turnovers. That's the formula we've identified with ourselves and that's what you have to take in to next year, and then the win-loss record will take care of itself."
Derrick Ward will be back for his second season as a Buccaneer, eager to take on a larger role if the Bucs can get their offense as a whole in gear. Earnest Graham proved that he could still have an effect on the game even when consigned mostly to the fullback role. And Cadillac Williams will get to use the offseason to improve his game for the first time in three years after his successful comeback from two major knee injuries.
"You see Cadillac starting to run physical and run through arm tackles and break people down, and you see Earnest Graham catch the ball in the flat and lower his pads," said Morris. "You see the offensive line have two real successful weeks there running the football. You see the physical, tough football team starting to develop. Now do we still need to improve in those areas? There's no doubt about it but I think it's starting. I think it's starting."
Williams finished the season with team-high 823 yards and four rushing touchdowns on 211 carries. His season was much like the Bucs' efforts as a whole, with a handful of huge games balanced with a few outings where he had little impact. Again, game situations and the success of the Bucs' other backs played a part in those up-and-down numbers, but Williams thinks he can work toward better consistency in 2010.
"I think I want to slim down a little more, work on speed and acceleration," said Williams. "I can go back to some of the quickness drills I do. Things like that. This is going to be a big offseason for me and I am looking forward to it."
That's true for the Buccaneers as whole. After posting their lowest win total since 1991 with a 3-13 finish, the Bucs are eager to prove that their plan to build an annual contender will be a success. A powerful and consistent running game remains central to that plan.
"That's where we've had our most success and that's what you'd like to formulate around," said Morris. "That's what you wanted to be. That's what you want your identity to be. It's starting to come out and they're starting to buy in."