Maybe they had spent too much time in the stifling Florida heat,
but as the Buccaneers went through training camp two-a-days this
summer, they were talking like a playoff team. If Tampa Bay,
which has endured 14 consecutive losing seasons, plans to make
its first postseason appearance since 1982, however, the
smallest man on the Bucs' roster will probably have to lead them
This is an article from the Sept. 1, 1997 issue
The little man is 5'8", 178-pound rookie running back Warrick
Dunn, and as he picked through a shrimp creole lunch in his dorm
room at the University of Tampa one afternoon during camp, he
contemplated the pressure he faces and appeared unfazed. Before
his junior year at Florida State, Dunn took responsibility for
five younger siblings when his mother, Betty Smothers, a police
officer and a single parent, was murdered on the job in Baton
Rouge. So while the pressure on Dunn to reverse the Bucs'
fortunes will be immense, it is nothing like what he has already
Tampa Bay does have a playoff-caliber defense, which allowed
less than 300 yards in eight of its last 10 games in '96. But
the Bucs had the NFL's lowest-scoring offense, with 20
touchdowns in 16 games. The team addressed its offensive
shortcomings in last spring's draft, making Dunn (No. 12),
wideout Reidel Anthony of Florida (16) and tackle Jerry Wunsch
of Wisconsin (37) its first three picks. All could be starting
by midseason, but Dunn will determine how far this team goes.
"Look at our first two preseason games to see the difference
he'll make," second-year coach Tony Dungy says. "In the first he
carried 12 times and broke one [for 38 yards]. In the second he
carried nine times and had a 16-yard run. I can see Warrick
getting 12 to 14 carries and catching four balls a game, and I
think his history tells you he's going to make a big play in
most games. That's what we missed last year."
The question is, How much punishment can the little man take?
Not since the Bengals counted on 5'8" James Brooks as their
every-down back from 1985 to '91 has a club handed so much
responsibility to such a small back. Tampa Bay seems to have a
good plan. Second-year fullback Mike Alstott will touch the ball
about 15 times a game, and workhorse fourth-year veteran Errict
Rhett, who's listed as the opening-day starter at running back,
is a power type. But as Dunn gets more comfortable with the
offense, he'll become the featured back.
In the preseason Dunn carried 31 times for 159 yards, a gaudy
5.3-yard average. He caught seven passes for 36 yards, and he
showed his versatility by returning four punts for 37 yards and
two kickoffs for another 46. Just as significant, he came out of
Tampa Bay's four exhibition games unscathed.
"Hopefully I won't take that much punishment," the quiet Dunn
says. "I avoid the big hits. That's always been my running
style. I'm not crazy. I'm not going to steamroll people. But I
am going to run effectively between the tackles. And I will last
longer than people think."
"Florida State did a great job showing us how to use [Dunn],"
says Tampa Bay director of player personnel Jerry Angelo. "He'd
have 20 carries in the big games, and then in some of the other
games you wouldn't see him much. We have to learn from that."
An effective running game will take the pressure off quarterback
Trent Dilfer. "We're good at every position on offense now,"
says Dilfer, who has talked a much better game than he has
played in his first three years in the league. "What we have is
potential, unproven potential--myself being Exhibit A. We have
to be better at picking up the blitz, we have to be better in
short yardage and we have to be better at sustaining drives. We
have to fix those areas, or we're not going to be any good."