For the better part of two decades it has been the color of incompetence in the NFL. On Errict Rhett, however, the orange of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers brings to mind a promising dawn. This season, Rhett's second in the league, it is becoming the orange of ignition and liftoff.
In Rhett, the Buccaneers have the NFL's Next Big Thing, a tough, talented, loquacious tailback who intimidates opponents both physically and verbally. "I never knew there could be such a thing as trash-talking during a chess match," says Tampa Bay offensive lineman Mike Sullivan, "but Errict did it to me. Took me right out of my game."
As he outhustled his teammates during a muggy practice, winning the wind sprints and hurling himself headfirst into defenders, it was easy to think of Rhett as a 5'11", 211-pound jackhammer, pulverizing the franchise's accreted layers of futility, obliterating a culture of defeat that began with the team's inaugural 1976 season. Despite his youth, Rhett has established himself as a leader on a 6-6 team that is among the NFL's most improved in '95.
Normally Rhett would be only too happy to discuss his gleaming future. Right now, however, he has an important errand to run. "These videos are a week late," he explains while weaving through Tampa traffic after that humid practice.
What sort of cinematic fare does the 1994 NFC Offensive Rookie of the Year favor? Let's see. We have Avenging Disco Godfather, a 1976 film, and Shaft, the '71 private-eye thriller that came out the year after Rhett was born. Asked to describe the appeal of such flicks, an uncharacteristically brief Rhett says, "They're kind of old. You've got to be able to relate to them."
In a way his partiality for these old movies makes perfect sense. There is something retro, something Red Grange-like, about Rhett's unadorned, punishing running style. (It is his ambition, he says, to crack a defender's helmet.) And there is something ageless about a 24-year-old who has no qualms about getting in the faces of his veteran teammates and telling them to get their butts in gear.
The older Bucs have come not only to tolerate Rhett but also to respect him. "I've been in the league six years, and he's told me I can play better," says guard Ian Beckles. "If I didn't know he was always going at 100 percent, I'd come back at him. But he is going full speed, all the time, so I can take it."
Indeed, Rhett's work ethic is unmatched on the team, possibly in the league. Every time he touches the ball in practice, he sprints at least 40 yards downfield. "Even the day before a game," marvels guard Charles McRae. "It's kind of a nuisance because we have to wait till he gets back. He has the ball."
It took half of the '94 season for coach Sam Wyche to name Rhett his starting tailback; Wyche spent the second half of the season wondering why he had waited so long. At the time of Rhett's promotion Tampa Bay was 2-6, and the firing of Wyche, 10-22 in his first two seasons with the Bucs, seemed inevitable. In the final eight games Rhett rushed for 727 yards. (He finished the season with 1,011.) Not coincidentally the Bucs won four of their last five games, finished 6-10 and saved Wyche's job.
Selected in the second round of the 1994 draft and signed the following August, Rhett did not arrive as a pro until Dec. 4, 1994. That was the day he ran wild against the Redskins, finishing with 192 yards on 40 carries and establishing himself as a candidate to someday share the orbit now occupied by the Emmitt Smiths and Barry Sanderses of the world.