RB Warrick Dunn was limited in practice on Wednesday but he'll likely be a key figure in the Bucs' offense on Sunday
The collaboration of Jon Gruden and Warrick Dunn occurred six years later than Gruden would have liked.
Gruden took over as head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in February of 2002, just days before the league was about to hit free agency. Dunn was one of the most prominent Bucs about to hit the market, but Gruden came aboard hoping the sixth-year back would stay in Tampa.
It didn't happen, of course. The Atlanta Falcons swooped in with a sizeable contract offer that was far beyond what would have worked for the Buccaneers. Dunn moved on to Atlanta, where he would more than earn his big deal with 6,000 rushing yards and 204 receptions over the next six seasons. The Bucs signed Michael Pittman instead and found immediate success that season with a trip to the Super Bowl and the winner's platform in San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium.
The Bucs may not have had an offer to match Atlanta's deal in 2002, but it wasn't because they thought any less of Dunn than the Falcons did, or because they had pigeonholed him as a third-down back.
"I want to be perfectly clear: I wasn't one of those guys who doubted his ability," said Gruden, noting that Dunn just recently passed Ricky Watters for the 19th spot on the NFL's all-time rushing chart. "I coached Ricky. If you've got more yards rushing than Ricky Watters, you're a superstar, you're a Hall of Famer. He's a great player, great."
Dunn was indeed an every-down back in Atlanta, even if he sometimes ceded carries to T.J. Duckett or Jerious Norwood, like any lead runner in the NFL does. The notion that Dunn might not have the legs to be a workhorse may have come from his size (5-9, 187) or the fact that he shared carries with fullback Mike Alstott for so long.
"I think he and Mike Alstott worked together here, had some glory days pounding the rock," said Gruden. "Mike was a guy, I think, that we all know characterized the toughness and short-yardage and four-minute situations, and Warrick was more of a first and second-down back that ran routes and did some of the other things. But he's accumulated tremendous mileage in this league and that just goes to show you what kind of player he is."
So what's the relevance of the discussion of whether Dunn is a "feature back" in the NFL, here in the 12th week of the 2008 season, his first back with the Buccaneers after those half-dozen years in Georgia? Well, that's just what the Bucs may need him to be here in the early stages of the playoff stretch drive.
The Bucs had a workhorse in Earnest Graham, but Graham is now on injured reserve after he sustained an ankle injury against Minnesota on Sunday. The Bucs will adjust to Graham's absence the same way they have reacted to every troublesome injury they've encountered this fall, by asking everyone who can possibly help to step up.
Dunn isn't alone in the Buccaneers' running back meeting room; in fact, he has something of an aspiring Dunn clone with him in the short but deceptively solid Clifton Smith. There's also versatile fullback B.J. Askew and just-signed tailback Noah Herron. And of course there is the big mystery, Cadillac Williams, who is being eased back into the mix after a rehab stint of nearly 14 months following a serious knee injury last September.
All of those backs will likely be a part of the solution, but Dunn is the closest thing the Bucs have, at the moment, to Graham when it comes to being an asset in every situation. Gruden will work to make sure that Dunn isn't overused down the stretch, but he expects to lean on the experienced veteran quite a bit.
"You try to a degree, but with a guy like Warrick he's got the ability to play in every situation," said Gruden. "He relishes this time, I think — big games. He knows the team needs him to step up. You need your running back, you need somebody at that position to be comfortable in every situation. Fortunately, Warrick is that."
During the first half of the season, Dunn had proved to be the perfect complement to Graham, as the two split the rushing-receiving touches almost evenly and produced about 500 yards each. Now he knows he'll be carrying much of the load himself, but he's as even-keeled about the situation as always.
"I expect to play a lot more but at the same time we have other guys who can come in and make plays," he said. "I am going to do my part to help us move the chains, score touchdowns and win games.
"I think now I can really just let the game come to me and have fun, just really relax and have fun and let the plays come. When you are in there constantly, you tend to do that and the plays do happen on their own. I just look forward to playing and having fun. It will all work itself out."
Proceeding with Caution
Cadillac Williams' activation from the Reserve/PUP list a week ago has most Buc observers — this site included — breathlessly anticipating his return to prominence. The Williams-takes-over-for-Graham storyline seems ready-made after Graham did the same thing for Williams last season.
In reality, Williams' situation may develop more slowly than the initial excitement might have indicated. On Wednesday, Gruden said that the Buccaneers are working to "temper their enthusiasm" in regards to Williams' immediate contributions, not because there are long-term concerns about the running back's availability but because no return from a 14-month layoff is going to be simple.
"We're just trying to do what we think is the right thing to do," said Gruden. "That involves a lot of people's opinions — the trainers, Carnell, everybody's included in this. We're just kind of going with the flow.
"I don't know that he'll play a major role in this game yet or not, or even if he'll be active. We signed Noah Herron, a guy we know can help us on special teams. But I think Cadillac practiced well."
Williams was not on the 45-man game-day active list against Minnesota. The loss of Graham would seem to increase Williams' shot of staying off the inactive list in Detroit, but Gruden said the issue involves more than just the backfield and Williams' health.
"It's not just about Cadillac," said Gruden. "It's about our team. We lost Geno Hayes; the Maurice Stovalls, the guys that are no longer playing; Jermaine Phillips has thrust Sabby Piscitelli into a starting role, so his special teams availability is hurting us; with Alex Smith's inactivity we can't lean on John Gilmore. You've got to be able to play special teams. That fourth, fifth receiver, the extra backs on everybody's team have got to play on [special] teams because we all know that special teams are going to be a key component here down the stretch."
Despite his likely lead-back role on Sunday, Warrick Dunn remains on the Buccaneers' injury report due to the back soreness that kept him out of most of the Dallas and Kansas City games. Dunn was limited on the practice field on Wednesday, though the team usually chooses to rest him on that day of the week anyway.
Three other Buccaneers were limited on Wednesday: wide receiver Ike Hilliard (shoulder), safety Jermaine Phillips (forearm) and tight end Alex Smith (ankle). For Phillips and Smith, that actually represents a move in the right direction.
Neither Phillips nor Smith played in last weekend's win over the Vikings. Phillips has been out since suffering a left forearm fracture against Dallas in Week Eight. Smith sustained his injury while catching the two-point conversion pass that tied the Kansas City game at the end of regulation. Neither player practiced at all last week.
Quarterback Brian Griese was the only Buccaneer who did not practice at all on Wednesday, as he continues to work on overcoming the right elbow injury he suffered in Denver in Week Five.
The Lions had a much more extensive injury list to report on Wednesday, though the seriousness of it will not be fully evident until Friday, when designations such as "questionable" and "probable" are added.
There were, in fact, nine Lions who did not practice on Wednesday, including five players who are currently listed as starter's on Detroit's depth chart: defensive tackle Chuck Darby (calf), wide receiver Calvin Johnson (quad), guard Edwin Mulitalo (knee), center Dominic Raiola (hand) and defensive end Dewayne White (calf).
The other Lions who didn't participate in Friday's workout are wide receiver Mike Furrey (concussion), running back Rudi Johnson (knee), quarterback Dan Orlovsky (right hand) and cornerback Keith Smith (groin). Of those nine players, four didn't play last week in Carolina: Furrey, Raiola, Smith and White.
In addition, another seven Lions were limited in practice to start the week: defensive tackle Ikaika Alama-Francis (concussion), defensive end Jared DeVries (hand), fullback Jerome Felton (ankle), safety Kalvin Pearson (shoulder), defensive tackle Cory Redding (groin), safety Dwight Smith (foot) and running back Kevin Smith (groin). DeVries, Redding and both Smiths are listed as starters.