After five years with the Bucs, the running back keeps his options open.
By ROGER MILLS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 3, 2002
TAMPA -- After closely reviewing film, talking to his offensive players and meeting with free-agent running back Warrick Dunn, Bucs coach Jon Gruden is more certain the five-year veteran can play a big role next season.
Saturday, for the second time in two weeks, Gruden gushed over the possibilities he sees in Dunn and said he hoped the former Florida State standout would be back next season.
"He's an explosive guy," Gruden said. "He can play any position. He's what I call a joker. If you play cards, you know you like having an ace or a joker in your hand. You can do anything with it. It goes with any hand and you can play it anywhere or any time. He's a great kid and I look forward to working with him. Obviously, we have to get that done contractually."
But as free agency unfolds in the coming days and weeks, Dunn said it's important for him to remember the wishes of a coach, like players' contracts, are not guaranteed.
"It sounds good, but I have to do what I have to do," Dunn said. "If that means moving on, then so be it. Tampa has become my home. I have a life here and I want to be here, if it were left to me. But if I have to pack up my things and move to another city, then, yes, it's something I would do for the right situation."
Dunn, who can sign with any team at any time, won't be alone.
The market is awash with top-level players cut because of the salary cap. Dunn isn't the only Buc on the open market.
Guard/center Todd Washington, defensive end Steve White, middle linebacker Jamie Duncan and cornerback Brian Kelly join Dunn as key contributors the team could lose.
In a system where timing is everything, Dunn's could not have been worse.
After averaging 112 yards the last five games of the 2000 regular season, Dunn seemed poised to assume the role as primary ballcarrier. But in 2001 Dunn routinely was tackled behind the line of scrimmage, struggled with hamstring and turf-toe injuries and never seemed comfortable running in former offensive coordinator Clyde Christensen's scheme.
Meanwhile, Mike Alstott had 680 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Tired of sharing duties, Dunn wants to be the featured back.
"I'm a running back and running backs want to carry the ball," Dunn said. "I want to have 20 carries, and I want them to be in the right way. I want to be used in the right way, instead of being forced to do some of the things that they tried to have me do last year."
History shows Gruden's version of the West Coast offense might use Dunn's talents more comprehensively.
Last season, the Raiders' biggest contribution at running back came from Charlie Garner, a 5-foot-10, 190-pound open-field runner whose game is similar to that of the 5-9, 180-pound Dunn. Running mostly outside the tackles, Garner had 839 yards on 211 carries and added 72 catches for 578 yards.
Gruden said Dunn is more than capable of carrying the load.
"I don't have any doubt in my mind," he said. "We had a guy in Oakland very similar in size and overall appearance in Garner. Warrick is very similar in size and stature. Yeah, I think he could be (a featured back). Absolutely. We don't discriminate against shapes and sizes, just guys that can do it. Obviously, Warrick Dunn is capable of being a force on an every-down basis."
If Dunn returns, the Bucs must consider their options with Alstott, who could be traded or incorporated into the offense with Dunn.
Last year, Raiders fullback Jon Ritchie, a superb blocker, did not have a carry and had only 19 catches. The Raiders used power running back Zack Crockett in short-yardage and goal-line situations. Crockett finished with only 145 yards but six touchdowns.
General manager Rich McKay described Gruden's evaluation of the Alstott/Dunn dilemma as "a process ongoing."
It is not the only one. The retirement of left guard Randall McDaniel makes the negotiations with Washington, 25, more significant. A backup the past four seasons, Washington said he's ready to be a full-time starter.
"It's a very exciting time for me," said Washington, who is more comfortable playing center than guard. "I have never been in this situation before and so it's good to know that you're wanted and that some people want to look at you.
"Everyone knows it's a business. You can't get away from that. And money has a lot to do with it. But I'm trying to do what's best for me, my son (Cameron, 3) and my family."
At 6-3, 324 pounds, Washington is a physical player.
"I met with coach Gruden, (new offensive line) coach (Bill) Muir and McKay the other day and they told me that I fit the demeanor of the offensive linemen that they're looking for," Washington said. "I have a nasty attitude on the field and they want that kind of a hard-core guy. It's good to hear that."
Still, Washington said his plan is to not think about where he will be until he goes on some visits, which could include Chicago, Houston, Cleveland and San Diego.
He would prefer to play close to the Virginia home of his son, but is keeping his options open.
"You just never know where this thing is going to take you," Washington said. "It wouldn't be fair to myself and my family to not see what's out there."
Like Washington, White, 28, is torn between the prospects of free agency and the appreciation he has for the Bucs, who gave him a shot as a rookie after he was waived by the Eagles.
"I will always have a deep appreciation for the Bucs and coach (Tony) Dungy, for giving me a chance to show I can play in this league," White said. "I'll always love Tampa Bay. It's a class organization and there are people here who counted on me."
Bouncing from right end to left end, White has been one of the Bucs' most versatile players the past three seasons. In his six seasons, the former linebacker has 10 sacks and 109 tackles sharing time with Marcus Jones. But White, likely to leave for a team that will give him a chance to start, will visit the Jets early this week.
"I know I want more playing time," White said.
The Rams and Colts likely are also early stops on White's tour. They, like the Jets, run defenses similar to the Bucs.
"We would like to have Steve back," McKay said. "Steve's probably going to make a visit or two and then we'll see how we will deal with that. But we intend to have that entire unit back."
Added White: "The best thing to do is make sure you have a good agent (White's is Drew Rosenhaus) and leave it in his hands. You have to take it as a business. You can't be too involved, too emotional. You just have to lay back, take your visits, and let them do the work."
-- Staff writer Darrell Fry contributed to this report.
RABIH ABDULLAH, RB, 6-1/227, 26. Comment: had 21 special-teams tackles and two forced fumbles.
REIDEL ANTHONY, WR, 5-11/180, 25. Comment: signed with the Redskins.
JAMES CANNIDA, DT, 6-2/291, 27. Comment: had first two starts and career-high 22 tackles.
JAMIE DUNCAN, LB, 6-1/238, 26. Comment: second on the team with career-high 130 tackles.
WARRICK DUNN, RB, 5-9/180, 27. Comment: averaged 2.8 yards on the ground and a career-high 68 catches for 557, 3 TDs
JACQUEZ GREEN, WR, 5-10/175, 26. Comment: finished third on the Bucs with 36 catches for 402 yards, 1 TD.
JEFF GOOCH, LB, 5-11/225, 27. Comment: had 16 special-teams tackles, saw little time in base set.
BRIAN KELLY, CB, 5-11/193, 26. Comment: started 11 games and had 54 tackles, 8 passes defensed.
DAVE MOORE, TE, 6-2/255, 32. Comment: had a career-high 35 catches and a team-high 4 TDsreceptions.
PETE PIERSON, OL, 6-5/315, 31. Comment: veteran left guard who played in every game.
MARK ROYALS, P, 6-5/215, 36. Comment: entering his 14th season, averaged 40.7 yards.
ERIC VANCE, DB, 6-2/218, 26. Comment: backup who played 10 games before being injured.
TODD WASHINGTON, OL, 6-3/324, 25. Comment: physical guard/center who is ready to become a starter.
STEVE WHITE, DE, 6-2/271, 28. Comment: versatile end who finished third with 5 sacks.
KARL WILLIAMS, WR, 5-10/177, 30. Comment: has four career punt returns for TDs.
Randall Cunningham, Ravens
Chris Chandler, Falcons
Rob Johnson, Bills
Garrison Hearst, 49ers
Dorsey Levens, Packers
Lamar Smith, Dolphins
Cris Carter, Vikings
Qadry Ismail, Ravens
Patrick Johnson, Browns
Byron Chamberlain, Vikings
Shannon Sharpe, Ravens
Ken Dilger, Colts
C Olin Kreutz, Bears
T Victor Riley, Chiefs
G Mike Wahle, Packers
Rob Burnett, Ravens
La'Roi Glover, Saints
Grady Jackson, Raiders
London Fletcher, Rams
Kevin Hardy, Jaguars
Earl Holmes, Steelers
Blaine Bishop, Titans
Tony Parrish, Bears
Rod Woodson, Ravens
Mitch Berger, Vikings
Tom Tupa, Jets
Sean Landeta, Eagles
John Carney, Saints
Mike Hollis, Jaguars
Todd Peterson, Chiefs