Tampa Bay's running back position is one of uncertainty as the 2008 offseason begins.
Former first-round draft pick Carnell "Cadillac" Williams is facing a long rehab associated with the torn patellar tendon he suffered in Week 4 vs. the Carolina Panthers.
In addition to the possibility of Williams not playing in 2008, both Buccaneers running backs Michael Pittman and Michael Bennett are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents on Feb. 29.
It's been a long time since Pittman didn't sport red and pewter. He joined Tampa Bay as an unrestricted free agent in 2002 after spending the first four years of his career with the Arizona Cardinals.
While he likely will hit the free agent market, Pittman wouldn't mind staying in Tampa Bay.
"I'm really open to anything," said Pittman. "If the Bucs really want me on this team then I'll stay here. It would be kind of difficult for me to leave Tampa, but it's all about opportunities. If there's a better situation out there in free agency for me then I'll probably do that. I'll definitely be loyal to Tampa, my teammates and the coaching staff and give the Bucs the first shot. If Tampa is interested I'll definitely sit back and listen to what they have to say. I have a good relationship with Coach Gruden, [general manager] Bruce Allen and my teammates, of course. I'm one of the last players from the Super Bowl team. I'll leave the ball in their court."
The 6-foot, 228-pound Pittman ranks fourth all-time in Tampa Bay history with 3,364 rushing yards and has produced 5,309 yards rushing (4.0 avg.) and 21 touchdowns during his 10-year career.
Even though he is regarded as a solid receiver and blocker, Pittman also owns four of the 16 longest runs in franchise history, including a 78-yard run vs. Kansas City in 2004 that still ranks as the longest in team history.
But Pittman's role in head coach Jon Gruden's offense has been somewhat reduced since Tampa Bay invested the fifth overall pick in the 2005 NFL Draft in Williams, who went on to earn NFL Rookie of the Year honors.
After touching the ball a total of 260 times in 2004, Pittman has averaged just 99 touches per season over the last three years.
But Pittman was making the most of those opportunities. After averaging over four yards per carry just one time in his first five seasons in the NFL, Pittman has averaged 4.2, 4.9 and 6.2 yards per carry, respectively, over the past three years.
Unfortunately, opportunity stopped knocking for Pittman in Week 5 when he sustained a severely sprained ankle in Indianapolis just one week after Williams went down with a torn patellar tendon.
Before that injury occurred, Pittman had posted impressive numbers vs. St. Louis (seven carries for 56 yards and three catches for 35 yards) and Carolina (15 carries for 90 yards). His 29-yard run vs. Carolina was the longest run of the season for any Buccaneers running back.
But Pittman wasn't the same after that injury. He missed four games (five weeks) of action and attempted to come back early from the injury vs. Atlanta. But his return was short-lived as he re-injured his ankle, this time tearing ligaments in his leg.
Pittman finished the season with 68 carries for 286 yards (4.2 avg.) and 26 receptions for 191 yards while scoring no touchdowns. Tampa Bay went on to win the 2007 NFC South division title, but there were times when Pittman didn't feel like he was part of it.
"This past year was really tough on me because when I finally got the opportunity to run the ball against the Rams and Carolina Panthers I was averaging over six yards per carry, but then I got hurt," said Pittman. "Then I tried to come back to help the team win because the team was doing so well. I tried to come back in five weeks from a 10-week injury. I think I tried to fool myself into believing I was okay, and really I wasn't. I went out there against Atlanta and re-injured my ankle and tore some ligaments. That set me back again. I just really was never myself after the injury. It was tough and frustrating because I saw all of the success, but I really wasn't able to help as much as I wanted. I was watching all of my teammates celebrating and high-fiving while I was sitting at home on the couch trying to rehab my injured ankle. It was very tough, but I know I'll be back and ready to go next year."
The injuries to Pittman and Williams opened the door for former undrafted free agent Earnest Graham, who rushed for 898 yards (4.0 avg.) and 10 touchdowns while hauling in 49 passes for 324 yards in 2007 en route to helping Tampa Bay's running game finish the season ranked 11th, which was the highest it had ever ranked under Gruden since his arrival in 2002.
With Graham under contract in 2008 and the Buccaneers likely to add at least one running back through free agency and/or the draft, Pittman has some reservations about re-signing with Tampa Bay since his role could become even more limited than it was before.
"It depends on what Coach Gruden says my role is going to be," said Pittman. "I know Earnest had a decent year, but I was able to put up numbers like that the last time I was given an opportunity. I give credit when it's due, and Earnest had a great year. But I'm not the type of back that just sits back and watches the game and my career go by. I know I can make plays. Sometimes I do get myself in trouble because when you're coming off the bench you're eager to try to make a play, so sometimes I'll press.
"I just want Coach Gruden and Bruce Allen to know that I still have a lot left in the tank. If they believe in me in that sort of sense then I definitely want to come back to Tampa. But I don't want to be one of those backs that's sitting on the bench and earning a paycheck just to earn a paycheck. I want to help us win and I know I can still play. It's really all about what Coach Gruden has to say and what Bruce says my role will be. That's if they even want me back. They may not want me back. It's definitely up to them."
The Buccaneers would like to re-sign Pittman, but at the right price. Pittman will turn 33 in August, which makes him the third-oldest running back in the NFL.
However, Pittman believes the fact that he keeps himself in phenomenal shape and has had a limited role in Gruden's offense over the past three seasons has extended his playing career.
"I keep my body in great shape and I feel great," said Pittman. "I lost my burst after my injury, but if you watched how I played before that I had it I was playing well. With the role I've had ever since we picked up Cadillac I believe I've picked up some extra years on my career. I feel great. I'm in shape. Once I get this ankle in shape I feel like I can play another five years. Do I want to? I don't know. That's another story. Physically, I think I can play another five years. I know I can still make plays. I feel great right now. The only thing bothering me a little bit is my ankle. Right now it's about 90 percent. Once it gets to 100 percent I'll be ready to play again. The day I can't play anymore is the day I know it will be time for me to retire. That time isn't here. I know I still have a lot of life left in my legs. I feel great."
Pittman was in a similar contract situation during the 2006 offseason and could have become a free agent then. A clause in his contract allowed him the opportunity to buy out the final two years of his deal. But Pittman did everything he could to convince the Bucs to convince him to stay, and the two sides wound up agreeing on a contract extension in March of '06.
While he'd like to remain in Tampa Bay, Pittman has accepted the possibility that he might have to resume his playing career elsewhere in 2008, evidenced by the fact that he recently hired one of the league's top agents, Drew Rosenhaus.
""I'd love to come back to Tampa. It would all depend on what my situation and role would be in the offense," said Pittman. "I was having a decent year until I got hurt last season. I really wasn't the same all year long. I really wouldn't mind coming back to Tampa. I wouldn't mind testing the free agent market. It all depends what teams are looking for out there. I love Tampa and I love my teammates. The fans are great. But it's really all about what situation is best for me. If Tampa really wants me here they'll do something that will keep me here. If not, it might just be my time to move on. I'll leave all of that up Drew, Bruce Allen and Coach Gruden."
There was a chance Allen and Rosenhaus, who also represents Graham, were going to meet in Mobile, Ala. during Senior Bowl practices this week to discuss Pittman's situation – or Graham's contract situation, seeing as how both Bucs backs share the same agent – but that hadn't happened as of Wednesday.
Should he hit the open market, Pittman will have some competition since several veteran running backs, including Michael Turner (San Diego), Mewelde Moore (Minnesota) and Julius Jones (Dallas) are scheduled to become free agents. The running back position is also considered to be quite deep in the 2008 NFL Draft.
But Pittman feels there will be at least one team out there that is interested in signing – and using him – on offense.
"I'm not sure how much talent will be on the market, but I know I have a lot of good tape," said Pittman. "If the Bucs want me back they'll do what it takes to bring me back. I'm not going to force myself on them. That's really up to Coach Gruden and Bruce. Drew Rosenhaus said he'd do his job, and I believe he'll do his job. I don't' want to just sign with a team to sign with a team and have a job, and then end my career disappointed and frustrated. I want to know hat my role is going to be and play for a winning organization. If the best-case scenario is for me to stay in Tampa then that's what I'll do. Right now I'm open to anything."
Even if the Buccaneers sign another running back, Pittman, who didn't score a touchdown for the first time since he's been in Tampa Bay, said he wasn't opposed to returning as long as he had a role on the playing field on Sundays.
"I don't have to carry the load," said Pittman. "I just want the opportunity to play. I know the Buccaneers have the players and coaching staff to get back to another Super Bowl and I want to be part of that. If I'm here it would be great, but if I'm not it will just mean it's time for me to move on."
Speaking of roles, Pittman's former running backs coach, Art Valero, recently had some parting shots for Gruden on his way out the door to St. Louis, where he became the Rams' assistant head coach.
Valero suggested Gruden created fires within the organization by not making it clear to players what their roles would be. Pittman suggested there was some validity to Valero's thoughts on this particular front, but said he still wanted to play for Gruden.
"It's a tough question to answer because I really don't want to burn bridges," said Pittman. "I could see where Coach Valero was coming from on some things. Coach Gruden really has to answer all of the questions. I really don't know what's going on between Coach Gruden and Coach Valero because we're not really there to see what's going on behind closed doors. There have been things that have been said in the past that really happen all around the league with different teams and personnel.
"You've heard guys that left here that were frustrated with what Coach Gruden has done in the past, but I really don't have a problem with Coach Gruden. I have learned to live with Coach Gruden. I've been with him longer than most guys on this team. The way he does things doesn't really doesn't bother me too much. Sometimes I get a little frustrated, but sometimes Coach Gruden probably gets a little frustrated with me. I just try to do my part to help the team win."
Even if he does leave Tampa Bay for another city and team, Pittman said he likely would still call Tampa his home.
"Walking away from the Bucs and everything they represent wouldn't be easy to do," said Pittman. "The fans have been great to me since I've been here. I like the city of Tampa and that's one of the biggest reasons why I would like to come back. The Bucs have one of the best stadiums and facilities in the game. Plus, all of my brothers on this football team are important to me. This is my comfort zone and my family, but it's about the best situation for me. Will the Bucs be the best situation for me next season? I don't know."
With fullback Mike Alstott announcing his retirement on Thursday, Pittman is the only remaining member of Tampa Bay's Super Bowl XXXVII offense. Of course, that could change depending on what the Bucs and Pittman ultimately decide to do regarding his contract situation.
"I've been with this organization for the longest time," said Pittman. "I remember Coach Gruden telling me a long time ago, ‘Pitt, as long as I'm here you'll be here with me.' I don't know what my future holds for me. I'm always open to come back here. I started here with Coach Gruden in 2002 and I'd like to finish my career here with him. But if that opportunity doesn't present itself I'm not going hang my head and be sour towards Coach Gruden or Bruce Allen. It would just mean my time here is over."
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