Michael Pittman wants the people of Arizona to know that he appreciated their support during his four seasons with the Cardinals, that his desire to leave the team wasn't an indictment of them or his teammates. It's just that a pro running back gets sick of playing games in November with nothing on the line but pride, and tired of slamming into the eight-man defensive fronts that Arizona faced nearly every week. Pittman wanted the playoffs to be more than a pipe dream. He wanted to make a difference on a contender, and more than anything, "I'd always wanted a team to pursue me," says Pittman, who signed with the Buccaneers as a free agent last March, after Warrick Dunn had left Tampa Bay for Atlanta. "When I found out Dunn was leaving, I knew that was where I wanted to go. I called my agents and asked them to get me a meeting." He pauses, savoring the memory of what happened next. "They told me Tampa had already called, that they wanted me."
As Pittman happily discovered, what new Bucs coach Jon Gruden wants, he gets. When general manager Rich McKay asked Gruden what he needed in a replacement for Dunn, the answer was a back strong enough to run between the tackles, fast enough to run away from linebackers and versatile enough to be a weapon in the passing game. In short, Gruden wanted Pittman. "He's not too well known, but Pittman's a talented, complete football player," says Gruden. "He's willing to do anything to contribute. I'm very, very excited to have him here."
The Bucs—and seemingly everyone in the greater Tampa area—are just as pleased to have the fiery Gruden. After the popular Tony Dungy was fired in the wake of a loss to the Eagles in the wild-card round for the second straight year, the franchise endured an embarrassing search for a replacement. After being spurned by, among others, Steve Spurrier and Bill Parcells, the Bucs had to give up two first-round and two second-round draft picks, plus $8 million, to pry Gruden from the Raiders.
The most noticeable changes under the new regime will be Gruden's multithreat version of the West Coast attack, which should inject life into the Bucs' perennially moribund offense. For the first time in three years a high-profile offensive newcomer, such as quarterback Brad Johnson in 2001, isn't expected to be the difference between a first-round playoff exit and the Super Bowl. "If anything," says Pittman, "that burden's on Coach Gru's scheme. I just want to be a piece of the puzzle."
The change in command dropped the curtain on Tampa Bay's five-year Thunder-and-Lightning Show, which starred 248-pound Mike Alstott and the 180-pound Dunn and was the two-back centerpiece of Dungy's predictable, conservative offense. Both were ineffective last year, combining for 1,127 rushing yards, 400 fewer than their previous low.
In Pittman the Bucs get a tough, 6-foot, 215-pound muscular back who ran for a career-high 846 yards and caught 42 passes for 246 last year. Over the last two seasons, in fact, Pittman had more receiving yards than Dunn and more rushing yards than Alstott. "Mike's a joy to have, because he's only interested in helping the team win," says Brad Johnson, who won a battle with Rob Johnson for the starting quarterback job in the preseason. "I'll tweak the way he runs a route, and he only wants more feedback when I'm done. He makes it easy for me."
So will a pair of free-agent signees, wideout Keenan McCardell (formerly of the Jaguars) and tight end Ken Dilger ( Colts), who will join with wideout Keyshawn Johnson to give the Bucs a much needed boost in the passing game. With the improvements to the offense, Tampa Bay could go deep into the playoffs if its perennially strong defense retains its place as one of the league's best—and tackle Warren Sapp gets more than the paltry six sacks he had last year.
If those high expectations sound similar to those of the last two years—when the heavily favored Bucs started 3-4 and struggled to make the playoffs—don't bother telling Pittman. "It's totally different here, being a Super Bowl contender every year," he says. "You can just tell that the guys love knowing that if we play like we're capable of, we'll go a long, long way. I know I do."
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