There is little doubt that Doug Martin, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' second-year running back, can improve upon his wonderful rookie campaign. The questions are: How much better can he get and, more importantly, how exactly can he manage to get better?
You see, Martin set the bar pretty high. He's already a Pro Bowler, already fantasy football nobility, already #57 on NFL Network's Top 100 Players. He narrowly missed becoming just the third NFL rookie to put up 2,000 combined yards from scrimmage, and his 1,454 yards on the ground alone ranked as the 10th-best rookie total in league annals. He scored 12 touchdowns, averaged 4.6 yards per carry, fumbled only once (and it was disputed) and caught 49 passes. There simply is no hole in those numbers, no obvious deficiency to erase.
By the standard coaching trope, however, every day that you don't improve, you get worse. Martin may have to go very high to improve upon what he has already done, but that is clearly the goal for both him and the Buccaneers.
"Yes, I had a great year last year, but there's always room to improve," said Martin. "We're out here, we've got a great backfield of backs and we're shaping them up and looking pretty good. We want to make it to the Super Bowl and we're out here full speed trying to get it."
But the question again: How?
"That's a good question," said Head Coach Greg Schiano on Wednesday, after watching another impressive performance by the young back out on the practice field. "Because I think he looks really good out there."
Still, Schiano says there is answer, and it has two parts, one mental and one physical.
"My whole thing with Doug is, continue to get a better understanding through [Running Backs] Coach [Ernest] Byner and the rest of our staff, just a better understanding of what all your job is," said Schiano. "And then, physically, taking of himself."
It was Martin's mental capacity that showed up first when he arrived in Tampa last spring after the Bucs traded up to pick #31 in the first round to get him. Incumbent LeGarrette Blount was still around at that time (he has since been traded to New England), but Martin quickly assumed the top spot on the depth chart as he displayed his grasp on the playbook. Most importantly, he showed that he could swiftly absorb the necessary blocking schemes so that he could be a three-down player and help keep his quarterback upright. That mental capacity should help Martin get even deeper into the playbook in his second year under Offensive Coordinator Mike Sullivan.
Martin never really wore down in his first 16-game season, either, never hit that "Rookie Wall." He had 128 yards against Philadelphia in Week 14, and 142 in a season-capping win at Atlanta. But the rigors of an NFL career can be cumulative, so Martin knows he has to continue to work on his strength, flexibility and stamina. Before the Bucs' offseason program kicked into high gear with the recent OTAs, Martin had put in extra time in both Los Angeles and Boise, running and working on his lower-body strength. He concentrated on sprints, straight-ahead running and some hill running for stamina.
"I want to make sure I'm flexible, make sure I stretch and make sure my game is tight," said Martin. "I try to be balanced [in workouts]. I work more on my lower body because it's all about my legs. Gotta work on my legs."
Martin doesn't have one particular part of his game he's trying to work on – again, his rookie season showed no real holes – but he thinks he can improve in every asset, and that will be reflected in his numbers and the team's success. There's reason to believe he can. Washington's Alfred Morris, a fellow rookie in 2012, is one of the nine players above Martin on that rookie single-season rushing list; of the other eight, three managed to put up better rushing numbers in Year Two – Eric Dickerson, Edgerrin James and Clinton Portis. One of the other five (George Rogers) was hurt as an NFL sophomore, and only one of the remaining four (Mike Anderson) declined by any significant amount.
"I had a good season last year but I just want to get better overall," said Martin. "Just get better all-around, whether it's my running the ball, the passing game, catching the ball, just that extra two percent to step my game up."
In the end, as dedicated as Martin obviously is, a good portion of the responsibility for helping him clear that rather elevated bar falls on Schiano and the other coaches.
"Me and the staff taking care of him each week, I think that's critical," said Schiano. "We know what he can do, it's not like he's a rookie and we're trying to figure it out. We've got to get him ready to play. Don't take it for granted that he's going to be the same guy…none of us are. But once he has shown that he's ready, then we've got to make sure we get him to Game One, then through all the rest of the games healthy. Those are the two things that I think are important."