Tampa Bay Buccaneers

One Step at a Time

Each preseason, Rabih Abdullah runs wild, and each regular season he sees his role with the Buccaneers expand

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RB Rabih Abdullah has gained 491 rushing yards in three preseasons with the Bucs

For the last three years, Rabih Abdullah and Ahman Green have waged a fierce battle.

Too bad neither one of them realized it.

Abdullah and Green each entered the NFL in 1998, Green as the Seattle Seahawks' third-round draft pick out of powerhouse Nebraska, Abdullah as an undrafted free agent from lesser-known Lehigh. Since, Abdullah has rushed for 491 yards, Green for 462.

In the preseason, that is.

Abdullah and Green have had similar career trajectories. Each has repeatedly proven to be an effective - even explosive - runner in the audition periods of August, thus earning permanent roster spots. But each has also then found himself behind proven NFL producers, Warrick Dunn and Mike Alstott in Abdullah's case, Ricky Watters and now Dorsey Levens in Green's case.

Yet, they've gotten the job done when they've had the opportunity. The New York Jets' Curtis Martin is the undisputed preseason rushing king since 1998, gaining a combined 575 yards. However, since Martin was also the AFC's second-leading rusher in 1999 with 1,464 yards, we're going to arbitrarily dismiss him from the preseason battle.

After Martin, no runner has picked up more yards in that span than Abdullah, with Green just behind and Packer/49er Travis Jersey taking the bronze with 439 yards. As quickly forgotten as preseason statistics are when September rolls around, this is still a noteworthy achievement for Abdullah. At the very least, it has allowed him to become the first Lehigh player ever to appear on the Bucs' active roster and one of only a handful that Abdullah can think of who made it in the NFL.

"I can't say that it hurt me," said Abdullah of his preseason exploits. "I'm still around, so obviously it's positive. When I got the opportunity to do that aspect of my game, I try to do it the best that I can, but I like to do other things, too. I want to show that I'm a well-rounded player and I can be used in various ways."

That attitude has steadily earned him a larger role. In 1998, Abdullah led the NFL with 280 preseason rushing yards, then promptly sat on the inactive list for 16 straight games during the regular season. Last year, Abdullah fought off a challenge from the well-known Leeland McElroy, made the team again and this time appeared in 15 games with one start. He proved his worth on special teams with 16 tackles and also got his first five NFL carries, gaining 12 yards.

Now, in 2000, even bigger things might be in store. It took him only one game this season to get a quick look in the backfield, and even though he didn't post a carry at New England on September 3, he did catch one pass for three yards, filling in for a temporarily sidelined Warrick Dunn. Abdullah also picked up where he left off on special teams, making one kick-coverage tackle.

"I didn't expect that," said Abdullah of his extended action in Foxboro. "I'm not saying I'm glad he got hurt, but it was good to step in and bump pads with the defensive guys a little bit. That was cool. I just want to be relied upon, to be able to step in if something happens."

Recently, Head Coach Tony Dungy has even mentioned the 6-1, 227-pound Abdullah as a candidate for limited action at fullback, where the Bucs are scrambling for ideas after the loss of Kevin McLeod to a heart condition. "That sort of situation would be new to me," said Abdullah, "but I'm willing to take that challenge.

"Basically. I just want to keep improving, doing more and getting better. That was my goal from the beginning and it still is."

The 'beginning' for Abdullah was the Bucs' 1998 training camp, in which he was one of about a dozen undrafted free agents. Before his stellar performance in the actual preseason games, there was nothing to tip off Buc fans that this unknown runner from Lehigh would be the cream of that crop. Abdullah, of course, never doubted.

"I had confidence in myself, that I could play," he said. "I believed that I could do it, given an opportunity. I think that's important, to have confidence in yourself playing this game."

So, with confidence in his ability and preseason stats as ammunition, does Abdullah long for a chance to be featured in the regular season. Well, yes and no. The impression one gets from the third-year back is that, while he believes he could be just as effective when the game counts, he is satisfied to wait his turn and focus on excelling at his current tasks.

"That's the nature of this league, that you're going to have players in backup roles who have good talents and can play," said Abdullah. "I realize that and it doesn't bother me, because Warrick and (fullback) Mike (Alstott) are great players. Great guys and great players. I just want to do what I can do to help the team win. Special teams, that's great, I love doing that…or whatever they ask me to do.

"I think I could (succeed at running back), but everybody has a role on the team. That's what makes teams good…you have good players at various positions. There are great guys that back up other guys, like Stephen Davis, who was backing up Terry Allen for numerous years. When he was given an opportunity, he got out and did very well."

An excellent example. From 1995 through 1998, Allen shook off the effects of several knee surgeries to remain prolific for the Redskins, averaging 1,022 yards per season in that span. Davis, a fourth-round draft choice in '96, was given just 198 carries in his first three seasons.

However, Allen moved on to the Patriots last year and Davis beat out Skip Hicks for the 'Skins starting job. All he did in his first real opportunity was rush for a Washington-record and NFC-best 1,405 yards, score 17 touchdowns and earn a Pro Bowl berth.

So what kind of runner would we see in Abdullah if he got an extended look as the featured back? Well, first of all, a politically smart one. When first posed this question, Abdullah's immediate answer was Tony Nathan. Whether that had anything to do with the fact that Nathan, Abdullah's position coach and a former Miami Dolphins standout, was walking by at the time is up for debate.

Taking a straighter approach to the question, Abdullah described his style as: "Find a hole, hit it, try to get yardage and run to daylight. I'm not that much of a lateral runner. I try to keep my shoulders square to the line of scrimmage as much as possible. I don't really turn from side to side much. I'm a downhill type of runner."

And still, perhaps, a work in progress. He didn't play running back until his senior year in high school, which is how he found himself at Lehigh. Other schools on the recruiting trail, such as Rutgers, saw him playing linebacker and defensive end frequently and wanted to keep him on that side of the ball. Lehigh let Abdullah tote the rock, and he amassed 3,696 yards and three touchdowns in just 33 games, averaging 5.5 yards per carry. The jump to Lehigh from the NFL was a move of even greater significance, and he has used much of his time in the league to learn new roles.

And that's just fine with Abdullah.

"I just want to be a marketable player," he said. "I want to have a wide repertoire of skills."

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