Consider these amazing, even alarming, statistics about Tampa Bay's Man of Steel, James Wilder. Last season he accounted for 92.7% of all rushing yards gained by Bucs running backs, and he set an NFL record with 407 carries. He finished with 1,544 yards. Tampa Bay's second-leading rusher was quarterback Steve DeBerg, with 59 yards; its second-leading running back was Melvin Carver, with 44 yards.
This year Wilder's numbers are even wilder. Including Sunday's 31-27 loss to the Los Angeles Rams, he had accounted for 95.8% of the Bucs' running yards. The closest anyone else has come to so dominating a team's offense in recent times is Eric Dickerson, who gained 80% of the Rams' running yards as a rookie in 1983. Until Ron Springs broke the string with a carry against Detroit on Sept. 29, Wilder carried the ball on 119 straight Buc rushing plays.
Wilder bristles at the suggestion that he is the Bucs' offense, but opponents need only inspect five minutes of Bucs game films to figure the thrust of the Tampa Bay attack. "When we played the Bears [Oct. 6], it was obvious that their defensive philosophy was aimed at stopping James Wilder from running the ball," says Bucs coach Leeman Bennett. The Bears did; Wilder was held to 29 yards in 18 carries—so much for his bid to tie the NFL mark of seven consecutive 100-yard games—and the winless Bucs lost 27-19. On Sunday, the Rams, with the fourth best defense against the rush in the NFL, held Wilder to 49 yards on 24 carries. Wilder accounted for all but one Tampa running play. Sub quarterback Alan Risher had the other.
"If we can find somebody who can do about as well as James, we would love to take some of the load off of him," says Bennett. "He accounts for a lot of our offense. No question about that."
One nagging question persists: How long can the 27-year-old Wilder last? He has remained largely injury-free, and his chiseled 6'3", 225-pound frame seems unblemished. But when do all the hits take their toll? "That's something I think about," says Steve Courson, a Tampa Bay guard. "I've seen it happen to other backs, like [former Washington Redskins halfback] Larry Brown, who had a similar running style to James's. If anybody could handle the load, I guess it would be James. Just look at him. He's like a bodybuilder.... But I think if the load were lessened, he'd be more effective. As it is, he goes into every game knowing he has to carry most of the burden." Is that burden beginning to slow him down, considering his last two sub-par games? "No. No. No," says Wilder, who leads the NFC in rushing with 575 yards, 18 more than Tony Dorsett.
Adger Armstrong, a Buc fullback, blocked for Earl Campbell in Houston, and saw Campbell's enormous work load slowly wear him down. "Let's face it: Our bodies were not made for football," Armstrong says. "It's not like a car getting hit, and then you repair it. With a body, you can't necessarily see all the wear and tear. A guy might get popped in the fourth or fifth game, it's going to linger all season." Bennett, though, does not believe he is overworking Wilder. "It seems to me most of the top backs in this league touch the ball 30 to 35 times a game."
Wilder claims he has no delusions of indestructibility—"I know what it's like to be hurt," he says, referring to his only serious injury, broken ribs that kept him out of five games in 1983, but his casual attitude toward his weekly beatings borders on martyrdom. "When my number is called, it's my turn to make things happen," he says. "It's not that much of a load, really. It's not like I'm running the ball 30 times in a row. Sure, I feel the aches a little on Sunday night and Monday morning, and that's why I look forward to running and lifting Monday afternoon. I do that, and I start to loosen up. If there comes a time when working out doesn't get the body fluids going, then I'll start to worry. But it's not that much of a pounding." With two years remaining on his $2.2 million, four-year contract, Wilder is not worried about longevity. "It takes its toll in the long run," he said, "but tell me a running back that doesn't like to touch the ball."
Wilder is a model back in more ways than one. When the Tampa office of John Casablancas Model Management asked the club for pictures of players who were possible cover boys, a head shot of Wilder nearly jumped off the desk. "When I saw his facial features—those high cheekbones, the strong jaw, very expressive eyes—I felt they were strong enough for us to see what the rest of him looked like," says Marsha Randolph, director for the agency. "When he walked in, I was very impressed. He's a little bulkier than most models, but he's bulky in all the right places." So impressed were the editors of Ebony Man that they plan to put Wilder on the cover of an upcoming issue—and not just because he's a football player.
"I prefer print work," says Wilder, who throws out terms like "the Dior turn" as readily as "off tackle." "Walking down the runway, that sort of thing, that's not for me. I'm a little uncomfortable with that." Shirtless poses are out, too. "What would my wife [Barbara] say?" Wilder is not exactly shy, but he's economical with words. "He's like a lot of models," Randolph says. "They don't say much, but they say a million words with their eyes or their body language."
Wilder often has been characterized as cold and aloof. "If you didn't know James, you'd think he was a snob because of the way he carries himself and the fact he doesn't say much," says Armstrong. "Most people are uncomfortable around mysterious, quiet people. It's like he's almost perfect in a lot of ways. But once you get to know him, he's just your basic nice guy."