Tampa Bay head coach Jon Gruden is attempting to find a way to remedy his team’s grounded running game, and he’s even considering calling on a player who the fans have been calling for all along.
After finishing the first quarter of the 2005 regular season with a running game that was ranked in the top five in the NFL, the Bucs have rushed for just 87 yards on a total of 38 carries (2.2 avg.) over their last two games, both of which were losses.
Bucs rookie running back Carnell “Cadillac” Williams and RB Michael Pittman both ignited the team’s ground attack earlier in the season, but they’ve been battling through foot/hamstring and shoulder injuries, respectively.
That, along with the fact that the Bucs lost starting quarterback Brian Griese (torn knee ligaments) for the year, has rendered Tampa Bay’s running game ineffective.
Williams has rushed for 496 yards (4.0 avg.) and two touchdowns and Pittman has produced 271 rushing yards (5.4 avg.) and a touchdown this season, but neither player has been able to help the Bucs’ ground game get back on track, which has some fans calling for fullback Mike Alstott to play a bigger role in Gruden’s offense.
Although he’s always viewed Alstott as a lead blocker or fullback, Gruden suggested Wednesday that the fans could see the “A-Train” get more touches as the season goes on.
“I respect our fans, and there’s a chance he might get the ball a little bit,” Gruden said of Alstott. “We’ll see. We want to get the running game going, whoever carries it, okay? We’re going to try to run the ball better. We’ve got a guy [Carnell Williams] who was enshrined in the Hall of Fame after three games, for crying out loud. We’d like to get him going again. But Alstott has been a big part of our football team and his role might be changing, who knows? We’ll see what happens.”
Alstott, who turns 32 in December, has rushed for 4,869 yards (3.8 avg.), which is second-best in franchise history, and caught 272 passes for 2,081 yards and 12 TDs. He’s played in 134 games (118 starts) since entering the NFL in 1996 as a second-round pick out of Purdue.
He’s also scored a total of 63 career touchdowns and 51 rushing TDs, both of which rank first in franchise history. In fact, the Bucs are 41-10 when Alstott scores a touchdown.
Despite producing those impressive numbers, Alstott has never really been viewed as a feature back by the offensive coordinators that have come and gone since Alstott’s debut in Tampa Bay, and the “A-Train’s” role in Gruden’s offense has dramatically decreased over the past three seasons.
Injuries have played the biggest role in limiting the six-time Pro Bowler’s production over the past two years. Alstott missed 14 regular season games in a two-year span due to a serious neck injury in 2003 and a knee injury in 2004.
Gruden said Wednesday that the “A-Train’s” neck injury, which required season-ending surgery in ’03, has not impacted the number of touches or playing time he’s received this season.
“No, he’s been cleared to play,” Gruden said of Alstott. “He’s physically fit and ready to roll. He’s playing pretty darn good fullback for us and has been a big reason why we were able to run the ball early in the season like we did.”
Tampa Bay restructured Alstott’s contract during the offseason in an effort to allow him to retire as a Buccaneer. Although he signed a two-year contract, Alstott is expected to call it quits after the 2005 season.
Alstott hasn’t exactly been given the opportunity to finish his career with a bang. He’s carried the ball just 11 times for 32 yards (2.9 avg.) and hauled in 13 passes for 104 yards and scored two touchdowns through eight games.
It appears as though Alstott has been phased out of Tampa Bay’s offense as a ball carrier, evidenced by the fact that backup RB Earnest Graham has two more touches than Alstott does this season. But he’s taken advantage of the limited touches he’s received.
Last Sunday, Alstott caught two passes for first downs and scored a touchdown on a 1-yard run vs. the Carolina Panthers. Those were his only three touches of the game. Not only would some fans like to see Alstott receive some more touches per game, some of the “A-Train’s” teammates share that sentiment.
“Mike made some big plays for us on Sunday,” said Bucs quarterback Chris Simms. “The two third-down conversions, I threw the ball into the flat because they kind of dropped back in zone coverages. He made some unreal plays, just breaking tackles and getting a few extra yards, which he does best. Maybe he would help. He’s a big, physical runner, he comes downhill. But again, I don’t know. That’s Coach’s decision. Cadillac [Williams] is running the ball as good as he can, and so is Pittman. We’ve just got to continue to work, get them some holes and we’ll get some positive yards.”
While he suggested Alstott could receive more touches, Gruden stopped short of promising the fans anything. Instead, he suggested that Tampa Bay’s running woes have more to do with blocking than they do the players actually carrying the football.
“I don’t want to start all this, really. Jiminy Christmas,” said Gruden. “We’re going to give [Alstott] the ball at times. We’re going to do everything we can to win the game. I respect everybody’s opinion, I’ll be the first to say that. I love that guy and there might be a case where he gets the ball. Who knows? He might carry 50 times, he might not. I just want to win some games. I don’t care who runs the ball, if we don’t start blocking better it’s not going to be a relative issue.”
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