'I am making a guarantee'
The newest Bucs running back, a powerful bruiser from the Cardinals, promises that Tampa Bay's rushing game will improve. Considering last season's statistics, it shouldn't be too hard for Pittman to deliver.
By ROGER MILLS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 6, 2002
[Times photo: Kevin White]
Michael Pittman has been slowed in the preseason by an ankle injury, but coach Jon Gruden has told him he will get plenty of opportunities in the regular season to become an upper-echelon running back.
TAMPA -- Immediately after the Bucs lost Warrick Dunn to free agency, the team's scouting department turned its attention to a little-known power running back with the Cardinals.
What was not to like about Michael Pittman? He was a bruising back, significantly bigger than Dunn. He was versatile, capable of catching the ball out of the backfield. He was crafty, aptly suited to Jon Gruden's shifting, always-in-motion offense.
So on March 25 the man with the bulging biceps and quiet voice signed a five-year, $8.75-million free-agent deal, which included a $1.75-million signing bonus. The idea was for Pittman to become the Bucs' new feature back and to put an end to the dual-back philosophy that has existed for Tampa Bay the past five years.
But there was one small problem. A bad wheel.
After sustaining a high ankle sprain on the opening day of training camp, Pittman, 27, hasn't dominated the highlight reels. And when he played against the Jaguars two weeks ago he reaggravated the ankle, sidelining him for the game against the Redskins.
"The thing with Michael is we had to get him as close to 100 percent as possible," running backs coach Kirby Wilson said. "If that meant we had to hold him back from some situations in (some preseason) games, then that's what we had to do. Our main objective is to get him ready for Sept. 8, because that's when it really counts. Who knows, he'll probably never be 100 percent during the season, but these guys are players and they know how to handle adversity."
Pittman does not think his ankle will be a lingering problem.
"It's getting better every single day, and the rest (against the Redskins) helped a lot," he said. "No one was pulling on my ankle. I know it's not going to be completely ready by the New Orleans game, but every day it's getting better and the swelling has gone down."
The Bucs need Pittman to shore up a running attack that produced 85.7 yards a game last season, second lowest in the NFL.
"I always accept a challenge," Pittman said. "Last year they finished second to last or last in the league in rushing. But it's a different coach, a different system, a different offensive coordinator. I didn't come here for us to be 30-something in the league in rushing. So I'm going to do all I can to get the job done, whether that's catching the ball in the backfield, being a decoy or blocking for (fullback) Mike Alstott.
"It's going to be a change. I'm making a guarantee: We're not going to be 32nd in the league in rushing this year."
That is sweet music for a team considered among the NFL's elite, one many experts have predicted will play the final Sunday of the season. But forgive the Thomases for doubting. The Bucs running game, seen as a hybrid of Dunn's speed and Alstott's power, never arrived at the pinnacle.
The Bucs are trying something new. They plan to use Alstott, likely to bury defenses late in games, and Gruden has showered praise on backups Aaron Stecker and Travis Stephens for their change of pace. But Pittman, once healthy, appears to be the go-to guy.
"I want to play a big role in this offense, catch the ball coming out of the backfield, running the ball, and coach told me that before I even came here," said Pittman, who packs 218 pounds on his 6-foot frame. "Once I got here, he's been pushing it into my head as to how big I'm going to be in this offense. He's counting on me. My teammates are counting on me.
"We've got other receivers and other backs who can do things with the ball. So I'm not going to be like, 'Hey, I want the ball!' Whenever I get the ball, I'm going to make the most of it. Whether it's 15 times or 10 times. If it's 25 or 30 times a game, when I get the ball I'll try to make something happen."
Even third-year pro Stecker, who lost an opportunity to be a starter when the Bucs signed Pittman, said his newest teammate is all business.
"On the field, when he's out there, he's an animal," Stecker said. "He runs with a lot of determination and is out there trying to inflict pain on the defense. He's a different style than what I am. He's trying to run over (defenders)."
A common theme expressed by Dunn and Alstott the past few seasons was that by splitting carries almost evenly, neither could find a rhythm. Pittman, who rushed for 846 yards and five touchdowns last season with the Cardinals, says that's not an excuse.
"Every running back in the league is the same way," he said. "But I'm not going to sit there and complain about Coach not giving me the ball. ... If he calls my number 25 times in a row, I'm going to love that. It allows a running back to get into a flow of the game, to look at the defensive schemes and see how they are slanted to the holes. It's great when a running back gets the ball 20-25 times a game. He gets a rhythm, he gets relaxed. If it ends up like that, I'm going to be so happy, but I'm not going to complain if it doesn't."
DOB: Aug. 14, 1975.
PLACE OF BIRTH: New Orleans.
HT/WT: 6-0, 218.
POSITION: Running back.
PERSONAL: Married to Melissa, has a young son, Mycah.
COLLEGE DAYS: Ended a four-season career at Fresno State as the third player in school history to rush for more than 3,000 yards. He finished with 3,017 yards.
CONTRACT STATUS: Pittman signed a five-year, $8.75-million contract March 25. It included a $1.75-million signing bonus.
BEFORE THE BUCS: A fourth-round pick, 95th overall, of the Cardinals in the 1998 draft, Pittman spent his first four seasons in Arizona, where he was a consistent contributor. Starting primarily on special teams, Pittman matured into a bruising back and saw his carries increase significantly each season. After 29 carries in '98, Pittman carried the ball 64, 184 and 241 times and recorded 289, 719 and 846 yards in the next three seasons respectively.
THE SKINNY: There isn't anything skinny about Pittman. With gigantic 191/2-inch biceps and a weight-room dedication, the man who once bench-pressed 435 pounds isn't going to run to the sidelines. Some consider him a bit of an upright runner, but Pittman's productivity has increased each season. What would you expect from someone with a tattoo on his right biceps that reads, "The Real Black Superman."
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