RB Warrick Dunn will get more chances to find open room to run in 2001
Last year, Warrick Dunn had his best season in one month.
In one fell swoop in Chicago in late November, Dunn went from being the 'WD40' prefix to a fixture in the Bucs' offense. When FB Mike Alstott (the 40 in WD40) suffered a significant knee injury against the Bears in game 11, the rest of the team groaned out loud but Dunn simply ground out yards.
Freed from the two-back rotation that had worked so well for the Buccaneers in the past but had left Dunn underused 2000, he ran wild in the team's last five regular season games. After rushing for 573 yards through the first 11 games (52 yards per contest), Dunn peeled off 560 yards, or 112 per game in the last five.
For a Buc team that needed to win at least four of its last five games – and did – Dunn was nothing short of spectacular down the stretch, which is more or less what Head Coach Tony Dungy expected when he placed the entire rushing load on him after Alstott's injury.
"We never had that theory (that he couldn't handle the load), and he's run the ball 20-plus times for us a lot in the past," said Dungy, shortly after Alstott's injury. "It's just that we don't go in specifically saying, 'This guy's got to get the ball' or 'That guys got to get the ball.' Right now, he's the running back and he's getting all the carries, and we think he's going to do a good job with that."
Yes, that qualifies as high praise from the reserved Dungy, and Dunn proved worthy of it. After carrying the ball 20 or more times in a game just six times through his first three-and-a-half NFL seasons, the 5-8 Florida State star cracked the 20-carry barrier four straight times after Alstott's injury. That sound you hear is the gears turning in new Offensive Coordinator Clyde Christensen's head, as he devises ways to take full advantage of the speedy Dunn over an entire season.
In fact, Christensen has already flatly declared that Dunn will be the focus of the Bucs' rushing game in 2001, though he plans to keep the talented Alstott heavily involved in the offense as well. Just minutes after being introduced as the Bucs' new play-caller, Christensen stated his intentions for Dunn.
"We want to feed the ball to him," said Christensen. "We want to make sure that we feature him in the running game. I do think we can't divide the carries 50-50 (between Dunn and Alstott) and get enough carries. We've discussed it already and one of the priorities is to give Warrick the chance to be the feature guy, to be the guy who gets in the rhythm, who gets in the groove."
Dunn got his groove on last December, and how. Somehow, in five weeks, he turned a potentially disappointing season into his second Pro Bowl berth and his second 1,000-yard rushing season (1,133, to be exact). Of the 23 NFL backs who made it to 1,000 yards last season, only five averaged more per carry than Dunn's 4.6.
Only seven times in the first 24 Buccaneer seasons did a back gain 145 or more yards in a game; Dunn did it twice in a three-week span, dismantling Dallas with 210 yards and following up with a 145-yard, three-touchdown epic performance against St. Louis. In that Dallas contest, Dunn dashed 75 yards untouched on his first carry of the game en route to a 9.6-yard per-carry effort, the second-best in franchise annals.
Quite simply, he put up big numbers, big enough to make his coaches shrug off concerns over his small stature. With his patented spin move, Dunn avoids many direct hits, but more importantly he bounces right back up when a defender does manage to get in a good lick. Over his four seasons in Tampa Bay, Dunn has gained admiration in the team's locker room as one of the Bucs' toughest players.
With his resurgence late last year, Dunn's chase up the Bucs' rushing record list was renewed. The only man he still trails, James Wilder, was a back of a different breed, a player who started his career as a fullback. Wilder racked up 5,957 yards in nine seasons and had a total of 2,878 through his first four years. Dunn has played four seasons now and already has 3,753 rushing yards, despite his often split role in the backfield. He doesn't figure to challenge Wilder's mark in 2001, but that day is not far off.
What Wilder and Dunn do have in common are strong receiving skills. In fact, they are the top two passcatchers in team history among running backs. Wilder, of course, is the all-time team leader with 430 receptions, but Dunn also ranks ninth at 191. Through his first four seasons, Wilder had 243 receptions, so Dunn is actually a little behind his predecessors pace in that category.
Of course, Buc fans are less concerned about Dunn's pursuit of Wilder and more interested in how he can jumpstart the league's 21st-ranked offense in 2001. His late surge in 2000 has made believers out of many including, most importantly, the man calling the plays this fall. In case you're not also convinced, check out a highlight package of Dunn's 2000 accomplishments (56K Real). Click here to see the video in 100K Real or here for 300K.