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2 TAMPA BAY Buccaneers
Peter King
September 01, 1997
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 there.
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September 01, 1997

2 Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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1996 Yards per Game (NFL rank)
1996 record: 8-10 (fourth in NFC Central)

Rushing

Passing

Total

OFFENSE

99.3(22)

170.4(26)

269.8(28)

DEFENSE

118.1(22)

182.8(4)

300.9(11)

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 there.

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 known.

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 steam-roll 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."

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