By RICK STROUD
© St. Petersburg Times, published November 26, 2000
TAMPA -- Warrick Dunn will tuck the football under one arm and a water bottle under the other.
"Hydrate," said Dunn, whose most important runs today may be to the bathroom. "The last few weeks I've started drinking more and taking care of my body. But sometimes, I can't help but cramp because I think I get a little too hyper. Mentally, my attitude won't change. I'll run hard and protect myself."
The Bucs have either prolonged or stunted Dunn's NFL career trying to protect him by limiting his touches in a game.
At 5 feet 8, 180 pounds, they believe he can't take the pounding of a featured running back.
With the season-ending injury to Mike Alstott, Dunn has an opportunity in the last five games to prove he is durable enough to get the football 20-25 times a contest.
Only four times in Dunn's career has he eclipsed 18 carries. In those contests, his rushing average is more than 4.5 yards. Dunn's biggest rushing performances of his NFL career came in '97, when he carried 24 times for 130 yards against Detroit and 24 times for 120 yards against the Giants.
There's no doubt Dunn will be counted on to shoulder the rushing load, beginning with today's game against the Bills.
"He is right now and he's probably going to pick up seven or eight more carries a game with Mike being out," coach Tony Dungy said. "He's going to have to carry the load for a few weeks. I know he relishes that opportunity.
"I think he likes to have the ball and he's gotten the ball more, especially the last month. He feels like he can do some things with it. I think he's feeling more like he's going to get enough opportunities, he doesn't have to press to make the most of every carry."
For years, Dunn has been portrayed more as third-down back such as Eric Metcalf than an every-down runner such as Barry Sanders.
It's hard to disprove either assessment because he always has had to split carries with Alstott. This month, the Bucs decided to begin giving most of the carries to Dunn, and he has responded well. Now he gets to be the man.
"Do I relish it? No," Dunn said. "Because a guy got injured and they have to use me. But when the opportunity is out there, you have to try to make the most of it. I hope it's positive. If the running game is not effective, blame me and the offensive linemen. When it is, praise the offensive line.
"I can be patient knowing that I'll get my carries and let the game come to me. I have to have faith."
Fullback Charles Kirby and running back Rabih Abdullah will share Alstott's old duties as a blocking back and in short-yardage situations. But Dunn is the first to admit the Bucs will miss Alstott.
"You don't want to be in situation where you're always in short yardage," Dunn said. "But he's going to be missed. He's been a part of this team for a long time. He's helped us get there, and one person can't do the rest."
Dunn couldn't have picked a worse team against which to make his solo backfield debut. The Bills haven't allowed a 100-yard rusher this season.
"They're tough to run against," Dungy said. "They rely on their front seven to stop the run and for the most part they do it. We're going to have our hands full blocking those guys man-on-man. If we're going to win, I think we've got to do that well."
So how does Dunn believe he will play without Alstott? Can there be Lightning without Thunder?
"I always try," Dunn said. "Sometimes it's not when you have the long runs or the touchdown passes, it's those garbage yards that help you get first downs on key drives and help the team win.
"We have to start winning and playing better as a team. And we have to start this week. Time is running out. If we don't start playing up to par, it's going to be ugly down the stretch."