Doug Martin wanted to stay in Tampa, and not just because of the nearby beaches and the Cuban sandwiches. As a 27-year-old running back coming off a phenomenal 2015 campaign, he was going to get a big contract and a starting job somewhere in the NFL; there was no doubt of that. It was in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' offense that he saw his greatest future.
"I love Dirk Koetter's offense," said Martin, adding that the presence of his former offensive coordinator as the Bucs' new coach was a "huge factor" in his decision. "I thought we had a bunch of young guys, a bunch of rookies that really came in and played very well. Jameis [Winston] is going to be a great quarterback for us and I can't wait to come back and play for the team. We are going to do great things, so the sky is the limit for us."
With Dirk Koetter calling the plays and then-rookie Jameis Winston taking every snap, Tampa Bay's offense set a team record with 6,014 yards of offense in 2015. Koetter relied heavily on Martin, who rushed for 1,402 yards and averaged 4.9 yards per tote as the centerpiece of the league's fifth-ranked rushing attack. The only defection from that offense is Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins, who announced his retirement on Monday. Meanwhile, young standouts like Winston, tackle Donovan Smith, guard Ali Marpet, wide receiver Mike Evans, running back Charles Sims and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins are only going to get better.
That's Martin's opinion, at least. He thinks the record-setting 2015 season was just the beginning. And, given that Tampa Bay only ranked 20th in points scored, there obviously is room for improvement.
"I think it's going to be better than last year," said Martin. "The year prior to that – everyone says that the reason I did good this past season is because I was playing for my contract – but if you look to the previous year, I was hurt, we didn't really have an offensive coordinator, we weren't really as potent on offense. This upcoming year, we have something to build on and not much is going to change. If anything we are going to get better."
Would that offense have had as good of a shot to fulfill it's potential if Martin had departed? The Bucs could have given a larger role to Sims, or countered with another running back in free agency, or devoted a significant draft-pick asset to the position. But General Manager Jason Licht, who spearheaded the Bucs' efforts to keep their star ballcarrier around, thinks Martin was specifically the best man for the Buccaneers.
"He obviously gains a lot of yards, but it's really the way that he gains them – with his angry style of running that makes everybody around him just love playing with him," said Licht. "The linemen like to block for him better than they would just a guy.
"Doug has overcome some adversity with the injuries. He had a couple of years where he was banged up and – not by us, but – he was written off by a lot of people. Coach Koetter was one of his biggest fans when he was first hired here. To overcome that adversity and be able to do what [Martin] did, tells you that he's something special; he's not a dime-a-dozen guy."
Martin referenced his contract status last fall, and the notion that he only returned to his rookie-season form last year because of that added motivation. Even last fall, as his great season began to near its conclusion, he reacted strongly to that unflattering line of thinking, citing better health and Koetter's offense as the main differences. The addendum to the idea that he was playing solely for a contract is that, upon receiving it, he would lose his motivation to produce the same results.
Koetter said he wasn't worried about that outcome at all.
"I've told several people that from the very first day of OTAs until the very last day of the season, every time Doug touched the ball on the practice field, he hit the hole hard, he hit it full speed and he made it like it was a real play," said the coach. "So when he had success even in preseason games last year, it wasn't a surprise, because that's how he was looking in practice every day. I think Doug, when he came back last offseason and went to work in the offseason program, he definitely had something to prove. He had that mindset and was able to carry it all the way through."
For the record, Koetter has first-hand experience with this very sequence of events. In 2007, he began a five-year stint as the offensive coordinator the Jacksonville Jaguars, one year after the team drafted running back Maurice Jones-Drew. After three strong years – though no 1,000-yard seasons, largely due to the presence of running back Fred Taylor – Jones-Drew signed a lucrative four-year contract extension in 2009. Over the next three years, all under the play-calling direction of Koetter, Jones-Drew averaged 1,440 rushing yards per season, including an NFL-high 1,606 in 2011.
RB Doug Martin led the NFL in rushes over 20 yards. Check out his 20+ yard gains in ascending order.
Martin's story isn't a carbon copy of Jones-Drew's. He played four years before his new deal, and he had to endure two that were unsatisfying due to the aforementioned injuries. He was headed to free agency this offseason because the Buccaneers declined to pick up the fifth-year option in his rookie contract when they had to make that decision last spring. But now he's at the same jumping-off point, and he doesn't regret anything that got him to this moment.
"It's definitely been a journey, having a great season in 2012 and getting injured and being out for the season [in 2013], and having injuries here and there in the third season," said Martin. "But to come back from that adversity and coming back last year as strong as I did, it definitely makes me proud and I'm glad that it happened that way."