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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Well Dunn

Bucs RB Warrick Dunn steps up with aplomb


RB Warrick Dunn is a unique player for his size according to Buccaneers Head Coach Tony Dungy

By Andrew Mason,

Going into college, 5-foot-8, 180-pound Warrick Dunn heard that he was too small to succeed on the college level.

Then he became Florida State's all-time leading rusher and the first Seminole to post three 1,000-yard seasons.

Going into the NFL, Dunn heard that he was too small to be an every-down back, that in spite of his status as a first-round selection by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he would have to play second fiddle as a third-down back in order to succeed.

Then, when a knee injury to fullback Mike Alstott placed the brunt of the rushing game on his shoulders, he soared to new heights. Dunn racked up 316 rushing yards in two games and turned in the best rushing game and longest touchdown run for the Buccaneers in over 17 years — a 70-yard dash on his first touch of the Bucs' 27-7 romp over the Dallas Cowboys.

"I haven't done that since college," Dunn said of the game-breaking run, on which he dashed untouched to the goal line. "(Tight end) Dave Moore had the toughest block; he got his man. After that it was a matter of breathing and running."

It wasn't the longest run of Dunn's career — he reeled off a 76-yard scamper against the Chicago Bears in the Bucs' final regular-season game of 1997. But it was the signature play of the second-best rushing game in Bucs history, as he departed in the fourth quarter with 210 yards, just nine off the Bucs' single-game standard, established by James Wilder in 1983.

Such numbers seemed inconceivable before Alstott's injury. In the Bucs' first 11 games of 2000, Dunn had touched the ball 15.1 times per game, and had averaged just 12.8 carries per outing. Four times, he had 10 or fewer carries, and not once did he post 20 carries.

But when Alstott went out, the calls came Dunn's way. In the last two weeks, he's averaged 21 carries per game, and has thrived on the work, with a skyrocketing 7.5 yards per carry and the Bucs' first two 100-yard games of the season.

Not coincidentally, the Bucs won both games by an average of 17 points. And the increased emphasis on Dunn's running has finally given the Bucs the proficiency their rushing game has lacked in the last two seasons.

While the Bucs' offense is designed for power running, Dunn's small stature has played to his benefit, as he has developed an innate ability to squeeze a gain out of even the smallest of holes. But the true hallmark of Dunn is his spin move, which he often performs in the backfield with the grace of a figure skater and demonstrated against the Cowboys.

"He is unique at his size," said Dungy after the game. "He is fast, quick and a great rusher. He runs strong for his size. It takes a lot to get a shot on him and we are lucky to have him."

His performance against the Cowboys was the magnum opus of an NFL career that has seen some harmonious efforts, but none since 1998. In 1999, he was the team's leading receiver, but averaged just 3.2 yards per carry. The number crunch carried over to this season, when he began by receiving fewer opportunities.

Dunn's average of 15.1 touches per game in Weeks 1-12 was nearly three touches per game off his '98 season, when he became just the fourth Buccaneer to rush for over 1,000 yards, and in that time, the Bucs were 6-5.

But Dunn feels the difficulties the team endured during the season — including a four-game losing streak, some closer-than-expected wins and injuries to Alstott, John Lynch and Shaun King — will only help forge a champion.

"As a team, you have to go through trials and tribulations to earn the championship demeanor," Dunn said.

In the last two games, Dunn has played like a champion. The next three will determine if his team can be.

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