FB Mike Alstott was a goal-line force again in 2005, and a strong lead-blocker
They thought, perhaps, he was being coy.
Time and again last winter, Mike Alstott's day ended the same way. Another long practice in the lingering Florida heat, another slow walk off the One Buccaneer Place practice field into the weight room, another powwow with reporters by the back door.
Another set of the same questions.
With the Tampa Bay Buccaneers fighting for a playoff spot, then a division title, then a chance to move on in the postseason tournament, it seemed like every afternoon was a potential ending for Alstott, the 10th-year veteran fullback. In some circles, it was all but assumed that Alstott would retire at the end of his resurgent 2005 season, happy to have gone out on a strong note but needing nothing more to prove.
We paraphrase Alstott's basic answer to the repeated line of questioning during his own personal Groundhog Day: 'I haven't decided anything.' That was read as: 'Yes, I'm retiring, but I don't want to talk about it right now.'
As it turns out, that was a misread, if an understandable and commonly shared one. The basic point lost in the assumption that Alstott was winding down his career was this: He wasn't done with football.
Football, as Alstott recently told the NFL Network in a "Walk and Talk" interview filmed on that same One Buc backyard, is "in his blood." Still. He insists he has lost none of his "passion and love" for the game, or for the Buccaneers. (To watch the video of that interview, courtesy of the Network, click on the link above.)
Alstott's fine 2005 season wasn't a fitting farewell in his mind, it was a reason to keep on plugging. A decade of hard-nosed play and a devastating neck injury in 2003 had reduced the rugged fullback to a lesser and less satisfying version of himself in 2004. He had met his own goal of returning from that potentially career-ending injury to play again in '04, but he hadn't made much of an impact on a struggling Buc team. He contributed just 432 combined rushing and receiving yards, easily a career low to that point if one discounted his abbreviated '03 campaign, and scored only two touchdowns.
Alstott responded to that tough year the way he has approached any difficulties in his career, such as the knee injury that cost him a month during the 2000 season. He simply kept his head down, worked hard and focused on what the team wanted him to do. The results in 2005 were more than anyone could have predicted.
Alstott wasn't expected to shoulder much of the rushing load in 2005 with the arrival of rookie first-round back Cadillac Williams. He ended up with just 34 carries for 80 yards. But six of those 34 carries ended in the end zone and he scored seven touchdowns overall, plus a two-point conversion in a November game against Washington that will go down among the most exciting moments in franchise history. He was a force once again in the red zone and, as an enormous bonus, may have provided the best lead-blocking of his career. Williams certainly saw the benefits of that blocking during his 1,178-yard Rookie of the Year season.
Alstott, the consummate team player, enjoyed the 2005 season thoroughly, despite a role far reduced from his career high of 949 rushing yards in 1999. It was fun again. And he thinks 2006 could be even better. To Alstott, this squad feels a lot like the 2002 team that won the first Super Bowl title in franchise history. Why wouldn't he want to be a part of that again?
In terms of career goals and statistical tables, there really isn't much left for Alstott to chase. He is not only the club's all-time touchdowns king, he has nearly half again as many as the second man on the list (68 to James Wilder's 46). He is the club's second all-time rusher, with 4,917 yards, but he would need in excess of 1,000 more to catch Wilder in that category (5,957). He could rise from fifth to second on the Bucs' career receptions list, again trailing only Wilder, but that difference in place would hardly define his career.
So padding his numbers isn't all that crucial at this point, but Alstott still describes himself as "greedy." He covets another Super Bowl win, of course, but Alstott is greedy on a more fundamental level. He simply wants another dose of football, another season of ups and downs, of triumphs and tribulations. Of that inner sanctum of the locker room. Of the team.
And that is why, despite a contract that was voided at the end of the 2005 league year, he spent less than a day in limbo. Really, it was only a few hours, and that obviously indicated that the plan for '06 was in place well before March 11, the date Alstott re-signed for an 11th year with the only NFL team he has ever known. Free agency began at midnight on that day and Alstott was back in the fold by the morning.
He didn't sign on for a victory tour. The Bucs could be quite strong at the fullback position, with the free agent addition of long-time Jets starter Jerald Sowell and the possible contributions of first-year man Rick Razzano. Alstott will end up with the role that he deserves, just as he did in 2005. Given his career-long approach to the game, though, it's hard to imagine Alstott choosing to return in 2006 if he wasn't prepared to attack the season as relentlessly as he did in 2005.
And the questions, for now, have died down. Hopefully they won't crop up again until February.