Replace Alstott? Not quite so easy

By JOHN ROMANO, Times Columnist
Published August 30, 2007

TAMPA - The Buccaneers lost something irreplaceable when Mike Alstott took his uniform off.

They lost a presence, a sense of toughness and determination. They lost a bit of their past, a link to better days and sweeter memories. They lost the feeling, however faint, that something magical might happen every time he was on a field.

No, the Bucs may never replace Mike Alstott, the icon.

But can they replace Mike Alstott, the fullback?

No matter where you place the responsibility, it has been quite some time since Alstott was an impact player in the Tampa Bay offense. Whether you believe age caught up to Alstott sooner than anyone realized or you think Jon Gruden was in too much of a hurry to de-emphasize him, the results remain the same. Alstott's role in the offense has faded since 2002.

All of which brings up an interesting question as Tampa Bay prepares for its final preseason game:

Are the Bucs stronger at fullback today?

The question is practically heresy in these parts, and no one drawing a paycheck from the Buccaneers would dare say anything like it for public consumption.

But the fact is Alstott averaged 160 yards rushing and 169 yards receiving the past three seasons. Those are not insurmountable numbers, even in a position that is not normally featured in an offense. As for his work as a blocker, the latter-day Alstott was better than his reputation, but it was still not his forte.

So, again, are the Bucs really better off with Michael Pittman at fullback?

They probably have more versatility. LaDainian Tomlinson is the only active running back with more receptions than Pittman during the past five seasons. And of the top-10 rushers in Tampa Bay history, only Pittman has more than 4.0 yards per carry.

He is not a great running back, and he was never cut out to be a featured back. But Pittman has a blend of speed, power and hands that could make him an unusual commodity at fullback.

"He is going to be more of a hybrid fullback. He is not going to be the traditional fullback, like Cory Schlesinger at Miami, who is just a big bruiser who will stick his head in there and blow guys up," running backs coach Art Valero said. "There are certain things Michael can do athletically that most fullbacks can't do. He can catch the ball, run after the catch, be able to beat guys on routes."

The difficulty will be in his duties as a lead blocker for Cadillac Williams. Pittman may weigh close to 230 pounds and has the physique of a brick wall, but fullback is an unnatural position for him. He will be closer to the line of scrimmage, and he will be looking to make contact instead of avoiding it.

And maybe that's where B.J. Askew enters the picture. Principally a blocking fullback and a special-teams standout, Askew could be the answer if Pittman struggles as a human battering ram.

Askew will probably be the fullback in short-yardage and goal-line situations. He may get more playing time if the offensive line struggles and Gruden decides more blocking expertise is needed at fullback.

The point is, the Bucs have options at fullback. Perhaps more options than they had last season. The truth is, they were moving in this direction even before Alstott went on injured reserve. Askew was signed from the Jets in the offseason, and Pittman was working out at fullback before training camp began.

Gruden has been talking about a rocket backfield from the time the Bucs signed Charlie Garner to team with Pittman in 2004. He tried reviving the idea last season with Pittman and Williams, but quarterback and line problems trashed the plan.

With Pittman and Williams together on the field, it increases defensive concerns. No matter the offensive formation - whether Pittman is lined up as a fullback, as a wideout or in the slot - a linebacker is going to have to pay attention.

"There are a lot of things we don't want to show right now because we're getting ready for Seattle, but it can be a good situation with both of us in the backfield," Pittman said. "We can create a lot of mismatches with the strongside linebacker covering me and the weak side covering Cadillac. You don't know where the ball is going to go. I can motion-out and be a receiver, or Cadillac can motion-out and I stay in the backfield. If the linebacker can't cover me, then they have to bring the safety in to help, and that opens things up for Joey (Galloway) in the secondary.

"We're very excited about this. We want to mix it up the best way we can."

So, I'll ask again, are the Bucs stronger at fullback today?

I would say, at this point in their careers, Pittman is the better receiver and the more dangerous runner. Alstott is probably a better blocker than Pittman, but it's hard to say where Askew would fit in that conversation.

So physically, yeah, maybe the Bucs do have more talent at fullback.

But Alstott always brought something greater to the game. He was never a speed guy, and he didn't have terrific moves. Instead he brought an intensity. A certain resolve. The emotional level in the huddle, and in the bleachers, would always go up a notch when Alstott was breaking tackles and driving toward the end zone.

That element cannot be overlooked.

And it cannot be replaced.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8811.