It's just after 5 p.m. when Doug Martin arrives through glass double doors at the upscale steak and seafood house around the corner from his Tampa apartment. Groggy from an afternoon nap, the Buccaneers' rookie running back is trying to get a feel for the layout of the place when an attractive brunette calls from behind the front desk, "Doug Martin?"
This is an article from the Nov. 26, 2012 issue
He looks startled.
"Bucs cheerleader," the young woman identifies herself, and a broad smile eases across the 23-year-old Martin's face.
"Oh, yeah. I remember," he says, half-recognizing her from a team function.
Later Martin is seated at a dark corner booth with his girlfriend, Alyssa Simon, as the dinner crowd trickles in. Another admirer catches him by surprise.
"You gave the best answer ever in that interview," says a male employee, making like the gushing host of the old Chris Farley Show on SNL. ("Remember that time... ?") "They were asking you, 'Was that move more Barry Sanders or Ray Rice?' And you said, 'That's a Doug Martin original.' That. Was. Great!"
Martin doesn't remember the interview or the comment, but he's too polite to say so, and the server moves on with a laugh.
Such is life for Martin these days—but it hasn't always been that way. Four weeks ago, having rushed for just 408 yards through six games and averaging a middling 4.1 yards per carry, Martin could float through this harbor city's finest establishments with limited interruption. His numbers were respectable, on par with the parade of blah Bucs running backs before him: LeGarrette Blount, Derrick Ward, Earnest Graham.... But that's not what fans were expecting after Tampa traded up to select him 31st in last April's draft.
A two-game stretch for the ages changed all that, however, and today Martin, the NFL total yards leader (1,319), is regarded as one of the most promising and versatile young runners in the league—a 5'9", 215-pound kaleidoscope of quickness and power. Thus the attention.
Fans—especially those who play fantasy—perked up after a nationally televised Thursday-night thumping of the Vikings in Week 8, an eye-opener in which Martin carried 29 times for 135 yards and a touchdown and caught three passes for 79 yards, 64 of which went for a second score. But that proved a mere appetizer. A week later he ran through the Raiders for a franchise-best 251 yards on 25 carries and scored four rushing touchdowns, including three on dashes of longer than 40 yards, an unprecedented scoring feat in the NFL. In those two games Martin piled up 486 yards of total offense, a tally topped only four times in NFL history, by a few guys you might remember: Walter Payton (twice), Jim Brown and O.J. Simpson.
On Sunday, following a mundane 119-yard outing against the Chargers in Week 10, Martin went for another 161 total yards against the Panthers. Even more crucial to the Bucs' bottom line, he got two linebackers to bite on Josh Freeman's game-tying two-point conversion play-action pass to receiver Vincent Jackson, and in overtime he carried the bulk of the load—48 yards on the ground—in the game-winning drive. The 27--21 win was the Bucs' fourth straight, their best streak since 2008.
Jimmy Raye, an offensive consultant for the Bucs, takes this all in with 35 years of experience under his belt. "He has the chance to be special," Raye says of Martin. "And I've been around some good ones." (No joke: He has worked with Eric Dickerson, Marcus Allen, Stephen Davis, Curtis Martin, Thomas Jones and Frank Gore.)
"He can do it all—run between the tackles, get to the edge. He's a very good receiver, and he isn't afraid to pass-block. What really gives him a chance, though, is that he's so humble."
It's easy to keep your cleats on the grass when you feel as if you're playing catch-up, as Martin does every day. Growing up in Stockton, Calif., he never dreamed of becoming a pro football player. Basketball was his thing. It wasn't until freshman year at St. Mary's High, when the AD asked him to give football a shot, that Martin considered the sport.
He instantly felt a connection with running backs because he had been so hard to catch when playing tag as a child, so he watched YouTube clips of Payton, Barry Sanders and Emmitt Smith. Over the ensuing years he would try to incorporate what he saw as the best qualities of each: Payton's toughness, Sanders's elusiveness and low center of gravity, and Smith's blend of both.
Still, his unfamiliarity with the game was obvious. He arrived at his debut St. Mary's practice with his shoulder pads on backward. When one amused teammate asked him where the Dolphins played, he guessed Chicago. And in his first game he fumbled the opening kickoff, which was returned for a TD.
The mental part would take time, but the physical stuff—he had that covered. To hone his evasiveness, he spent his summers at a nearby schoolyard, aligning orange cones into a miniature field, enlisting a family member to play defense.
"What other things did I have to do in the summertime?" asks that would-be tackler, sister Gabrielle, a former volleyball player at Howard University. "I enjoyed it for the most part, but he was stronger than me, so it wasn't possible to bring him down."
Martin didn't play varsity until his final two years at St. Mary's, and again at Boise State he struggled to find his place, agreeing before his sophomore season to switch to cornerback because of the team's crowded backfield. By Week 1 that plan was scrapped. In his last three college seasons he had 43 rushing TDs, and he finished his college career with 4,885 yards of total offense. Even then he was considered a project in the draft. His 4.55 40 at the combine didn't help, and it took some serious faith from first-year Bucs coach Greg Schiano—who saw shades of his former Rutgers pupil Ray Rice—for Martin to sneak into the first round.
If those things didn't ground him, then Martin's first four games as a pro did. With expectations high among Bucs fan, his yardage and carries dropped each outing following a 95-yard opener, and in Week 4 against Washington, heading into the bye, he bottomed out with 33 yards on eight carries.
Growing pains were expected as first-year offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan juggled a new marquee wideout in Jackson, a quarterback learning a different playbook and the rookie back. So Tampa's staff spent the down week scouting itself.
"Doug showed the vision, the burst, the suddenness that special running backs have," says Sullivan. "But we didn't have many opportunities for big [running] plays early on."
To create those chances, Tampa first had to show the threat of its receiving weapons: the 6'5" Jackson and the 6'2" Mike Williams. It's no coincidence that Martin's breakout game against the Vikings came one week after Jackson's 216 yards versus New Orleans.
In the four weeks before the bye Freeman had averaged 197 yards in the air, completing just seven passes of more than 25 yards, and Martin had just six rushes of at least 10 yards, none for 20 yards or more. But in the six weeks following the bye, Freeman averaged nearly 90 more passing yards per game and connected on 25 of those defense-stretching big plays. At which point Martin took off: 22 rushes of at least 10 yards, and six of 20 or more, four of them for touchdowns. That's twice as many long-distance scoring runs as anyone else in the league.
"The two go hand in hand," Sullivan says of Martin's explosion and the vertical aggressiveness. "That made it more difficult for teams to load up the box and take away the run."
Another factor in Martin's breakout has been his willingness to admit his relative naiveté. At halftime against Oakland, when Martin had only 31 yards on eight carries, Schiano told him he was losing his balance because he was dropping his head as he hit the hole.
Head up, Martin's third carry of the second half went for 45 yards. And two possessions later he burst off left tackle for a 67-yard score. "I did what [Schiano] said, and then it was off to the races," says Martin, all humility.
A week earlier, on the flight home after the Vikings game, a teammate had tried to get Martin to sit in first class, traditionally reserved for veterans. He declined. When some of the older guys hounded him to upgrade, he relented. But "he wanted to play his role as a rookie," says third-year defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. "He could have said, I'm a starter.... But he didn't. And that's rare."
Rare, but not entirely surprising in Martin's case. A business major at Boise State, he understands that football sets the table for everything else. If he doesn't take care of business on the field, there won't be demands off it.
He wants his brand to be associated with hard work, humility and integrity—and not the Muscle Hamster nickname that has stuck with him since college. Explaining the moniker, which he hates, Martin says his girlfriend at the time was a gymnast, and a common friend referred to her by that name; when he protested, the name was heaped on him too.
You can see how it would stick—note the cheeks, the slippery moves and the propensity to run so low to the ground that he's often hard for linemen to grasp—but Martin and the Bucs have been trying to hatch a new handle. In the first half-day after asking for suggestions on Facebook, the team received more than 3,100 submissions. Martin's favorite was Douginator—because he believes it sounds intimidating.
But it's hard to argue with the brilliant descriptiveness of Muscle Hamster. Martin is more quick than he is fast, more sudden than gradual. His big plays are the result of preparation combined with instincts: He tries to work out how a defense will attack a particular play, allowing him to know where the hole will materialize. And in a pinch, intuition takes over.
It's at times like these, watching Martin wiggle and juke past defenders, that you get the feeling he's still out there playing tag.
The Muscle Hamster has been wheeling through the highlight reels, but how do his best scampers compare with those of Chris Ivory (left) and Jamaal Charles this season? Check out Chris Burke's video analysis of the year's Top 10 runs so far at SI.com/mag
Martin is on pace for 2,110 total yards, third most ever for a rookie.
Only Jim Brown, Payton and O.J. have more yards in back-to-back games.