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It's time the Bucs broke up this couple

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By JOHN ROMANO

© St. Petersburg Times,
published December 4, 2001


TAMPA -- They have had trouble running left and trouble running right. They have struggled to run early and haven't even bothered to run late.

So here we offer the next, and possibly last, alternative for the Bucs:

Take either Warrick Dunn or Mike Alstott -- the choice is yours -- and run him straight toward the bench.

The Bucs have been running in place for so long, this is where they find themselves. At square one. Or is it second and long?

As plans go, the idea to pair Alstott and Dunn was a dandy. Looked good, sounded good, felt good. One was big and powerful. One was quick and elusive. So add this one, with that one, and what do you get?

Too many names and too little production.

With Alstott in the backfield, the Bucs have an immensely talented runner. With Dunn in the backfield, the Bucs have another immensely talented runner.

With Dunn and Alstott together in the backfield, the Bucs have the most anemic running game in franchise history. Which is saying a lot when your history includes Louis Carter and Lars Tate as featured backs.

Does this mean Alstott is to blame for his 3.8-yard rushing average? Or Dunn for his 2.8-yard average? No and no. What this means is that, as a tandem, Dunn and Alstott are somewhat less than the sum of their parts.

The regular season is three months old and, by now, it is clear the offensive line is not adept at run-blocking. And the tight ends are better receivers than blockers. Which means the Bucs need blocking help elsewhere.

This is where rookie fullback Jameel Cook must come in.

And either Dunn or Alstott must go.

"We've talked about that," coach Tony Dungy said of the possibility of increasing Cook's playing time. "Jameel has done a pretty good job when he's been in there. That will be one of the things that we investigate."

The Bucs are desperate for added blocking, and neither Dunn nor Alstott can provide it. When they are together in the backfield, the Bucs essentially have two tailbacks. Dunn is too small to block defensive linemen and Alstott, although technically a fullback, always has been much better running through holes than helping to create them.

It is not as if the Bucs haven't gotten a glimpse of the possibilities. In the past two seasons, Tampa Bay's running game has been at its best when Dunn or Alstott went solo.

What was Tampa Bay's best rushing effort this year? When Dunn was out with a hamstring injury and the backs gained 161 yards against Minnesota.

When did Tampa Bay's running attack come alive last year? When Alstott went down with a knee injury and Dunn averaged 130 yards over the next four games.

"That is true. We've had some success in those situations," offensive coordinator Clyde Christensen said. "But the fact is that both of those guys are healthy right now. So what you're saying is that we should put one of our better players on the bench and bring in a rookie instead.

"Do you want to turn Warrick into a third-down back? Do you want to make him extremely unhappy and keep him on the bench for two-thirds of your snaps? Or do you want to give Mike 10-15 snaps a game, because that's what Jameel has been getting lately?"

Dungy offered the same arguments when asked why he was reluctant to use Cook as a full-time fullback with Dunn or Alstott behind him.

But if the solution seems drastic, it is only because the situation dictates it. The Bucs are averaging 3.2 yards per rush, which is 30th in the NFL. They are averaging 79.8 yards rushing per game, which is 29th. The only teams -- Carolina and Detroit -- gaining less on the ground are a combined 1-22.

The risk of alienating one of their stars is great, but so, too, is the risk of wasting a season. Dungy said Monday that Tampa Bay does not have to worry about the playoffs if it does not start running the ball more effectively.

And it is not as if the Bucs haven't been down this road before with other positions on the roster.

When they were unsure whether Shaun King was experienced enough to take them to the next level, they risked his ire by signing Brad Johnson. Defensive line coach Rod Marinelli has risked annoying Simeon Rice by alternating him with Marcus Jones and Steve White to keep everyone fresh.

The bottom line is, this does not have to be a permanent solution. In the abstract, the Dunn-Alstott duo still has the potential to be special. Maybe next season they will do for Tampa Bay what Larry Csonka and Mercury Morris did for Miami a generation ago.

But that is not possible with the current offense. That has been proven too many times already this season. And the evidence strongly suggests that the running game will benefit with a true fullback such as Cook in the game.

So decide whether you want to go with Alstott or Dunn. Decide if you want to alternate them from series to series. Split their time however you like.

Just split them up.

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