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New season, new questions about how to ride A-Train

By JOHN ROMANO, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 18, 2002

LAKE BUENA VISTA -- His game is unlike any other in the NFL. This is the best you can say of Mike Alstott. And perhaps the worst.

LAKE BUENA VISTA -- His game is unlike any other in the NFL. This is the best you can say of Mike Alstott. And perhaps the worst.

For it has been a careerlong quest to figure out on which tracks the A-Train should run.

Is he a fullback or a tailback? Should he be deployed as a receiver out of the backfield or a battering ram near the goal line? And who is responsible for cleaning up the broken linebackers left in his wake?

The new season has brought a new coach, a new offensive system and the same old questions about Alstott's role. Only the names have changed.

Substitute Jon Gruden's offense (thankfully) for Clyde Christensen's or Les Steckel's or Mike Shula's. Replace Warrick Dunn or Errict Rhett with Michael Pittman. And still you must figure out what to do with a player who is not quite fullback and somewhat shy of tailback.

For now, the plan seems to suggest less is more. That smaller doses of Alstott will provide greater returns. He will not be the featured back, he will not be an every-down fullback.

Instead, Alstott will be called on as a tailback in short-yardage situations and the red zone. Other times he will alternate with Jameel Cook as a fullback in front of Pittman. Occasionally he will work in a one-back set.

In other words, the Bucs are not trying to make Alstott into something he is not. Namely, a blocking fullback or a scat tailback.

"I've always said Mike is cursed with talent considering his size," general manager Rich McKay said. "He's more talented than his size shows and, accordingly, it creates a conflict at times. But he's a good guy to have on your football team. And he will always be a factor during the season. It may come Week 1 or it may come Week 10, but it's going to happen."

There was a moment Friday night in Jacksonville when the direction of Alstott's season seemed to reveal itself. Pittman limped off the field with a sore right ankle on Tampa Bay's first possession.

In the past, there would have been two immediate reactions. Alstott would be moved to tailback and fans would be moved to their feet.

That answer no longer seems obvious. Aaron Stecker replaced Pittman at tailback and Alstott remained in the game at fullback. Alstott would leave a short time later with a mild concussion.

Perhaps we can read too much into the sequence. Perhaps it has no more meaning than the outcome of a preseason game.

Or perhaps it suggests Alstott is being fitted for a new role.

A role that will eliminate confusion about who carries the bulk of the offensive load. A role secondary in nature to Pittman. A role that, perhaps, uses Cook in blocking situations, uses rookie Travis Stephens as a change-of-pace back and uses Alstott as a not-so-secret weapon.

"Mike is going to be a guy, when it's all said and done, who has a creative role," Gruden said. "It's going to depend upon who we are seeing, what type of defense we're looking at, and how we're going to attack it."

Given the heft of Alstott's salary and the expanse of his popularity, his playing time can be a ticklish subject. Christensen openly worried last season about the potential fallout if he kept Alstott closer to the bench so Cook could provide Dunn more blocking power.

So complain, if you wish, that the Bucs may not be utilizing a unique talent. Grumble about all that Alstott brings to an offense.

It is true he embodies many of the qualities we deem admirable in football stars. He is neither fancy, nor flashy. He runs straight ahead and, sometimes straight through, defenses. Alstott plays as if bruises were a commodity and he was collecting all that swelling allows.

But, even if you worship the style in which Alstott plays, you must acknowledge the limits of what he can do.

Alstott is not a tailback who creates plays on his own. Give him room between the tackles and he will rumble through like mayhem itself. But do not wait for him to go wide and do not expect him to find every crease.

Nor is Alstott a fullback who will excel as a lead blocker. He can pick up a blitz and he will give every effort to block for a tailback, but Alstott has never been a junior-sized lineman or tight end.

So this is where Gruden's imagination will be tested. To find moments on the field that capitalize on Alstott's talents without making the Bucs susceptible to any shortcomings.

"The thing about Mike is every time he's on the field, he's productive," McKay said. "So I don't know that we're quite as caught up in how many times he touches the ball as much as trying to use Mike in the critical areas."

The A-Train will not be left behind.

It just has a new direction.

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