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Fullback Mike Alstott and his representatives have indicated that the “A-Train” is leaning toward playing again in 2007.
Alstott, 33, has contemplated retirement over the past two seasons, but his love and passion for the game of football keeps bringing him back.
The question now is will he be back with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers?
Bucs head coach Jon Gruden views Alstott as a fullback, but there are a contingency of fans who have called for No. 40 to get the ball more as a ball carrier.
Although he hasn’t been the primary ball carrier in Gruden’s offense, Alstott did serve as the team’s short-yardage and goal-line guy in 2005, scoring a total of seven touchdowns.
But Tampa Bay’s offense fell apart in 2006, finishing the season ranked 29th overall while scoring a total of 20 touchdowns. Although Alstott carried the ball 60 times as opposed to the 34 carries he received the previous season, the “A-Train” rushed for just 171 yards (2.9 avg.) and three touchdowns in ’06.
In fact, Alstott has averaged 3.8 (2002), 2.9 (2003), 3.4 (2004), 2.4 (2005) and 2.9 (2006) yards per carry over the past five seasons.
This production isn’t impressive, and it’s certainly not worth $1.5 million, which is the base salary Alstott received with his one-year contract last year.
Some believe the Buccaneers only re-signed Alstott last year in an effort to avoid the public relations hit the team took when it released safety John Lynch and allowed defensive tackle Warren Sapp to sign with Oakland in free agency. That may or may not be true.
Regardless, Tampa Bay has afforded Alstott the opportunity to retire as a Buccaneer. But at some point teams and players must move on, especially after the team goes 4-12 and finishes in last place in their division and the player's skills show signs of erosion.
Alstott has had enough swan songs the past two years. The Buccaneers might owe Alstott the opportunity to return to Tampa Bay, but they don’t owe him another $1.5 million base salary.
Sure, Tampa Bay has $24 million in cap room to spend, but signing Alstott to anything more than the veteran league minimum wouldn’t be fair to several Bucs players, including running back Cadillac Williams and wide receiver Joey Galloway, who are scheduled to earn base salaries of $1.37 million and $1.283 million, respectively, in 2007.
Do those players deserve to make less than Alstott, who is regarded as a situational-type player and not considered a Pro Bowl-caliber fullback?
After all, Alstott is an adequate lead blocker and has been a liability at times in pass protection. While there are flashes of the “A-Train” of old, his running skills are declining, and his hands have become suspect. And when he does catch the football, Alstott hasn’t been a productive player with it, evidenced by his career-low 4.0 average per reception last season.
Last year, Tampa Bay’s running game imploded. It finished 2006 ranked 28th in the NFL, and Williams rushed for just 798 yards (3.5 avg.) and one touchdown.
While he can’t be blamed for Williams’ lack of production last year, Alstott certainly can’t escape it either as he served as Williams’ lead blocker more often than not.
Tampa Bay needs to upgrade several positions on the offensive side of the ball, including the fullback position, and the Bucs have the opportunity to do that this offseason.
Atlanta fullback Justin Griffith is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent on March 2, and Griffith is a player who is on Tampa Bay’s radar.
Griffith, 25, has served as the primary lead blocker for Atlanta’s offense, which has produced one of the league’s most potent running games over the past several seasons.
While Falcons quarterback Michael Vick has contributed to that success, so have Warrick Dunn, T.J. Duckett and Jerious Norwood. In fact, the Falcons had the No. 1-ranked ground attack in the NFL last year.
In addition to his blocking ability, Griffith has some Alstott-like qualities, including his ability to run and catch the football.
The 5-foot-11, 232-pound Griffith has rushed 81 times for 378 yards (4.7 avg.) and one touchdown – that came at Tampa Bay safety Will Allen's expense – while catching 87 career passes for 621 yards (7.1 avg.) and nine scores.
Signing Griffith, who is well versed in the West Coast offense, must be one of Tampa Bay’s top priorities this offseason.
It will be difficult for many to see Alstott retire or play for another team after spending his first 11 seasons in the NFL with the Buccaneers, and understandably so.
Alstott is arguably the most popular Buccaneer in franchise history, and for good reason. Alstott is a six-time Pro Bowler, and he is Tampa Bay’s all-time leader in touchdowns (71) and rushing touchdowns (58). He also ranks second all-time in team history with 5,088 rushing yards and third in receptions with 305.
Alstott is a team captain and played an integral role in helping to turn one of the losingest teams in NFL history into a playoff team and Super Bowl champion. If the Bucs ever do implement a Ring of Honor at Raymond James Stadium, Alstott’s jersey should be one of the first ones honored.
But at some point, Alstott and the Bucs will have to go their separate ways. Unless he accepts a contract worth league minimum and a role as a backup in Tampa Bay’s offense, that time appears to be now.
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