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
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
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 steamroll 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."
COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO As he showed at Florida State, the 5'8" Dunn doesn't need much of a hole to spring for a big play--a dimension the Bucs' attack has lacked. [Warrick Dunn in game]
BY THE NUMBERS
1996 Yards per Game (NFL rank)
1996 Record: 6-10 (fourth in NFC Central)
OFFENSE 99.3 (22) 170.4 (29) 269.8 (28)
DEFENSE 118.1 (22) 182.8 (4) 300.9 (11)
A Losing Streak with a Silver Lining
When Tony Dungy began his NFL head-coaching career with five
consecutive losses, including a 34-3 defeat by Green Bay in the
1996 season opener, he joined some prestigious company. In 1954
Baltimore's Weeb Ewbank, the only coach to win league
championships in both the NFL and the AFL, began his career with
an even more lopsided loss: His Colts fell 48-0 to the Los
Angeles Rams. Six future Super Bowl coaches began their careers
with losing streaks comparable with or longer than Dungy's.
Super Bowl Coaches Whose Careers Began with Long Losing Streaks
Coach Team Streak Streak First Super
breaker Bowl season
Tom Landry 1960 Cowboys 0-10 Giants, 31-31 1970
Jimmy Johnson 1989 Cowboys 0-8 Redskins, 13-3 1992
Bill Walsh 1979 49ers 0-7 Falcons, 20-15 1981
Joe Gibbs 1981 Redskins 0-5 Bears, 24-7 1982
Bud Grant 1967 Vikings 0-4 Packers, 10-7 1969
Bobby Ross 1992 Chargers 0-4 Seahawks, 17-6 1994
We'll know after four weeks whether Tampa Bay is for real.
Between home games against playoff contenders San Francisco and
Miami are division games at Detroit and Minnesota. The
Buccaneers were 2-6 in the division and 1-5 against playoff
teams last season.
STRENGTH OF SCHEDULE
NFL rank: 21
Opponents' 1996 winning percentage: .488
Games against playoff teams: 7
The Lineup With 1996 Statistics
Coach: Tony Dungy
QB Trent Dilfer 482 att. 267 comp. 55.4% 2,859 yds. 12 TDs
19 int. 64.8 rtg.
RB Errict Rhett 176 att. 539 yds. 3.1 avg. 4 rec. 11 yds.
2.8 avg. 4 TDs
FB Mike Alstott 96 att. 377 yds. 3.9 avg. 65 rec. 557 yds.
8.6 avg. 6 TDs
Receivers, Specialists, Offensive Linemen
WR Karl Williams 22 rec. 246 yds. 0 TDs
WR Horace Copeland* 35 rec. 605 yds. 2 TDs
WR Reidel Anthony (R)[**] 72 rec. 1,293 yds. 18 TDs
TE Jackie Harris 30 rec. 349 yds. 1 TD
PK Michael Husted 18/19 PATs 25/32 FGs 93 pts.
KR Karl Williams 14 ret. 27.4 avg. 0 TDs
PR Karl Williams 13 ret. 21.1 avg. 1 TD
LT Paul Gruber 6'5" 296 lbs. 13 games 13 starts
LG Jim Pyne 6'2" 290 lbs. 12 games 11 starts
C Tony Mayberry 6'4" 292 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
RG Jorge Diaz 6'4" 308 lbs. 11 games 5 starts
RT Jason Odom 6'5" 307 lbs. 12 games 7 starts
LE Chidi Ahanotu 47 tackles 5 1/2 sacks
LT Warren Sapp 51 tackles 9 sacks
RT Brad Culpepper 42 tackles 1 1/2 sacks
RE Regan Upshaw 25 tackles 4 sacks
OLB Rufus Porter[**] 43 tackles 0 sacks
MLB Hardy Nickerson 120 tackles 3 sacks
OLB Derrick Brooks 133 tackles 1 int.
CB Anthony Parker[**] 71 tackles 4 int.
SS John Lynch 103 tackles 3 int.
FS Melvin Johnson 80 tackles 2 int.
CB Donnie Abraham 58 tackles 5 int.
P Tommy Barnhardt 70 punts 43.1 avg.
Rookie statistics for final college year