The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have seen it before - Micheal Spurlock running alone down the sideline, ball in hand, end zone awaiting. Just never quite like this.
Spurlock has been in the NFL since 2006, though he's considered just a third-year player by league standards, as a result of several years spent on various practice squads. He has had an interesting if not yet fully satisfying professional career as he has tried to convert to wide receiver from his college position of option quarterback. It seems like things might be about to get a little more interesting.
Spurlock first captured the Buccaneers' attention in 2007 when he ended a 32-season drought and became the first player in franchise history to return a kickoff for a touchdown. Three years later, after time on the practice squads in Tampa and San Francisco, he popped back into the Bucs' consciousness with another free run down the sideline. Against the eventual-champion New Orleans Saints last December, Spurlock keyed one of the most stunning comeback victories in NFL history with a fourth-quarter punt return for a touchdown.
The kicking game was Spurlock's ticket to staying in the league, obviously, but he has been working for five seasons to establish himself as more than just a return man.
"Like I said, coming into this league, I've always been told that the more that you can do the better," he said. "So whatever that is - if it's snapper, holder, punter, whatever - hey, I'm trying to do it. I'm trying to be here in Tampa, and be here with these guys. There is something special going on here and I just want to be a part of it."
Spurlock probably could do those things if asked - and there is as school of thought that he would make an excellent Wildcat quarterback - but his future is clearly as a pass-catcher. However, Spurlock has yet to score a regular-season receiving touchdown in the NFL, as a Buc or otherwise; in fact, he has just four catches, all in 2006 with the Arizona Cardinals. That zero might not last much longer, however. On Saturday night at Raymond James Stadium, in Tampa Bay's 2010 preseason home opener, Spurlock did score on a catch, in rather spectacular fashion at that, improving his chances of sticking around for the games that count.
With the Bucs trailing the Kansas City Chiefs, 7-3, early in the second quarter Spurlock ran a deep out to the right sideline, with one Chief in close pursuit. Spurlock was in the game at that moment and playing split end because rookie starter Mike Williams had left the game for a minute with leg cramps. The coverage was relatively tight, but quarterback Josh Johnson put his pass on the money and Spurlock caught it right near the sideline as the defender grabbed him. Rather than continue out of bounds, Spurlock stopped, managed to twist away from his foe and suddenly found himself facing the end zone with no one in the way. Fifty-three yards later, the Bucs were ahead, 10-7. They would go on to win, 20-15 after tying the game in the third quarter, 13-13, following Spurlock's 22-yard catch in traffic.
"From my standpoint, Spurlock ran a great route and I was able to put the ball on him and he did the rest," said Johnson of the touchdown play. "And that's pretty much what it's all about. The quarterback needs to get those guys the ball, so they can make a play."
Spurlock finished the game with three receptions for 75 yards, leading all receivers. He had the benefit of a lot of playing time, as he subbed on occasion in the first half and then played extensively in the second half. But he had prepared himself for just such an opportunity with his work on the practice field, where he has been a standout among a deep group of receiving candidates.
"With anything that you do, the more that you do it, the better that you become at it," said Spurlock. "So the more that I'm learning to be a receiver and know where people are and take a pre-snap picture, I'll get a whole lot better. Returns, it is a little bit different than playing offense, but that vision, it does help."
Head Coach Raheem Morris said after the game that Spurlock had given his team a spark and he described the good-natured receiver as "hot" in the last few weeks. In the coming weeks, Morris and his staff will have to figure out how to cut their group of 10 receivers roughly in half for the start of the regular season. In past years, Spurlock might have been a long shot to make the cut; now he appears to be a very real and intriguing option for that cast of 53.
Spurlock is obviously doing all he can to make that happen, but he's actually rooting for everybody in his group.
"That's one family. I mean, everybody out there is pulling for one another and we hope that we do well," he said. "We want to make the people upstairs' jobs hard, and if we get cut here, we are trying to make the team somewhere else. That's just how hard we trying to make it for them. Every day that we go out, we're putting the pedal to the metal and trying to make the next guy better. That is the only way we are going to have a good collective group, because everybody pushes everybody, and that's just what we are doing."