RB Aaron Stecker turned in the most significant effort of his NFL career Sunday against the Vikings
At the beginning of the most significant play to date in his young NFL career, Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Aaron Stecker had quite a bit to overcome.
When the ball nestled into his hands five yards behind the line of scrimmage on Sunday, 40 yards lay between him and the south end zone at Raymond James Stadium. Those 40 yards, littered with Viking defenders, were, in a way, an apt representation of the barrier-filled path that lay in front of Stecker when he first tried to make it in the NFL in 1999.
If you watched the game on Sunday, you know how both journeys turned out.
The play in question first appeared to be a breakdown in pass protection, as quarterback Brad Johnson backpedaled in a hurry with two Viking defenders chasing him. However, it was actually a well-designed screen, as Johnson waited until the last moment before lobbing a perfect screen pass to Stecker.
Stecker wheeled after making the grab and started off downfield. At first glance, it looked like a play that was going to work modestly well, maybe even get close to the sticks on second-and-13. It wasn't until after Stecker had turned on the jets and weaved through half of the Vikings' defense, cut-faking past cornerbacks Kenny Wright and Eric Kelly and driving through safety Orlando Thomas inside the five, that the importance of the play was revealed.
In a game that was dominated by Mike Alstott's 129 rushing yards and three touchdowns, it was Stecker's play that seemed to put the game away, even if it was just two thirds of the way into the second quarter. The touchdown gave Tampa Bay a 21-0 lead and gave Stecker his first career touchdown. It also gave the Buccaneers confidence that they could survive a game offensively without Pro Bowl tailback Warrick Dunn.
The main part of the answer to Dunn's absence was Alstott, of course. However, Stecker took over Dunn's third-down back roles throughout the game and was also the primary rusher in the fourth quarter, when a 41-8 Bucs lead sent Alstott to the bench. Both developments led to the most extensive playing time of Stecker's career, and he responded with 81 total yards on eight carries and two receptions.
"I always said I just want the opportunity," said Stecker after the game. "I told myself even if I only have one chance, I am going to try my best to make something happen. We just went out there and relaxed and it seemed like it all came together today."
Stecker's opportunities have been hard-won. To get to the point he was at on Sunday, where the Super Bowl-chasing Buccaneers felt confident putting him on the field in a key role, Stecker had to work his way through two colleges, two NFL practice squads and a very important trip overseas.
Stecker, a Green Bay native, began his college career at the University of Wisconsin, but transferred to Western Illinois when it became apparent that Badger opportunities would be rare behind eventual Heisman Trophy winner Ron Dayne. At WIU, Stecker needed just two seasons to break the team's all-time rushing record, piling up 3,799 yards and 41 touchdowns. In his first year as a Leatherneck, Stecker led the entire nation with 1,957 yards, but failed to capture the fancy of any NFL team on draft day.
The nearby Chicago Bears gave Stecker a chance as an undrafted free agent in 1999, but didn't keep the rookie around long. Tampa Bay stepped in with an opportunity on the practice squad, where Stecker spent most of the 1999 season, impressing Buc coaches with his tenacity. That opportunity might never have materialized had the Miami Dolphins not signed RB Autry Denson away from the Bucs' practice squad.
Still, a fine showing in practice is not always enough to earn a spot on the active roster. For that, Stecker willingly accepted an allocation to the NFL Europe League during the 2000 offseason.
After a year without game action, Stecker stepped right back into his running shoes with the Scottish Claymores, earning league offensive MVP honors and leading his team to the NFLEL's championship game.
The impetus from that experience carried over into training camp, where Stecker showed enough flash and dash to earn a spot on the 53-man roster and a job as the primary kickoff return man.
Perhaps due to the strain of two consecutive seasons, Stecker's playing decreased quickly. He did lead the team with 29 kickoff returns for 663 yards but was inactive for six of the last seven games (including the playoffs) and was given very few opportunities on offense. Stecker finished the season with just 12 carries for 31 yards, eight of those occurring in the Bucs' first three games. Rabih Abdullah, the Bucs' other back-up back, carried 16 times for 70 yards.
The following offseason, during the spring of 2001, Stecker stayed stateside, limiting the wear on his body and becoming more familiar with the Bucs' offensive system. The team chose to convert Abdullah into a hybrid fullback/running back, leaving Stecker as the primary small tailback behind Dunn.
Now, roughly a third of the way into the season, that decision has paid off for the Buccaneers. Make no mistake, Alstott is still going to get the bulk of the carries when Dunn is out. However, it is comforting to the coaching staff to have, in Stecker, the same smaller, quicker option to Alstott's bruising attack that Dunn can provide.
For Stecker, it was more than comforting. It must have felt like excitement mixed with vindication.
"It felt tremendous and now I can say I scored," said Stecker.
Maybe he can even say he's arrived.