Leaving It On The Field
Joe Henderson, The Tampa Tribune, published 8 November 2004

The microphones and questions kept coming in Michael Pittman's direction. What did it feel like to be him? Everyone wanted to know. That's what happens when you have the kind of game he did Sunday, and Pittman handled the questions as easily as he had handled the cheers coming from the stands at Raymond James Stadium a few minutes before. It was quite a scene to complete quite a day.

Pittman ran for 128 yards and three touchdowns and caught two passes for 30 yards more as the Bucs defeated Kansas City 34-31. They wouldn't have come close to winning without him. All but 9 of those yards came in the second half, including 78 on a romp to the end zone that was a team record. His 3-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter gave the Bucs the last lead they would need. Yes, it was quite a scene.

But it still felt a little weird to watch it unfold. Pittman missed the first three games of this season - all losses - while on suspension. After he accepted a plea bargain on endangerment charges in Arizona for ramming a car carrying his wife and baby with a Hummer, Pittman spent 14 days in jail. The NFL then ordered that he miss those games without pay and docked him two additional checks. The punishment was appropriate, and maybe it should end there.

He has reconciled with his wife, Melissa, served his sentence, and is trying to make changes in his life. Spend any time talking with Pittman and he can seem like the nicest guy on the planet. He seems liked by his teammates and coaches, and his impact on the field has been significant since returning. Judging by the cheers as he left the field, the ticket-buying public obviously is more interested in his present than his past. Maybe that's fair. Some things people do in life are hard to get past though, and ramming a car with your wife and baby in it is one of them.

We talk a lot about role models in sports, but the NFL is a business and there is no question how much the Bucs need him - especially with Charlie Garner out for the season and Mike Alstott on the injured list. ``He's our guy,'' Jon Gruden said. ``Right now we're leaning on him to make plays.''

The biggest one came on the second play of the third quarter. The Bucs trailed 24-21 and Pittman had 9 yards on seven carries to that point, but before fans really had time to settle back in their seats from halftime, he took a simple toss and sprinted 78 yards to the end zone. ``Kenyatta [Walker] and Cosey [Coleman] got good blocks, and I thought I'd be able to pick up the hole,'' Pittman said. ``It just opened so big, and I ran through it. It was unbelievable, really.''

He was in the huddle when it was announced to the crowd of 65,495 that Pittman's run was the longest scoring romp in Bucs' history, so it didn't sink in until he got back to the sideline and someone else told him. He allowed simply that it ``felt good'' to set the record, but obviously the win was what really mattered. ``We're very positive right now,'' he said. ``Hopefully we can build on this win, win eight straight, and hopefully get a first-round bye.''

Well, we'll see about that. At 3-5, there's no urgency to print playoff tickets. There's no question the Bucs are playing better though, and Pittman is a big reason why. ``The guy never gets tired,'' tight end Ken Dilger said. ``It's big-time having him back there. With our play-action, if you don't have a running game, that stops the play- action pass. With him running so hard, those plays are working well. Now you see them bring the safeties up, maybe use an eight- man box [on defense]. And when they do that, we can be more aggressive.''

It's useless to speculate where the Bucs would be today if Pittman had been available all season. He wasn't, the Bucs lost all three games without him and Pittman knows better than anyone he let his teammates down. You can understand why some would say ``enough already'' and let Pittman get on with his life and his season. We can accept that Pittman is dealing with his problem and wish him every success, and certainly people make mistakes. He made a huge one, and he paid for it.

As big as the Bucs are in this town though - which means Pittman is big here, too - it's worth bringing up every so often, if for no other reason than to put football in its proper perspective. We can appreciate his play and the Bucs need him. No one is saying he shouldn't be allowed to participate. People can cheer his play if they want, and he deserved that Sunday. As for cheering the man though, not just yet.