Rick Stroud, The St.Petersburg Times, published 4 December 2000|
It's not enough for the Buccaneers to ask Warrick Dunn to carry just the football.
After watching him rush for 210 yards and two touchdowns Sunday in Tampa Bay's 27-7 win over the Dallas Cowboys, it is only right that he do much more.
From now on, it's obvious Dunn will have to carry the entire offense, carry them to victories in their three remaining games and carry their hopes of reaching the playoffs.
So the surprise was not that the 5-foot-8 Dunn ran over, under and around the Cowboys defense.
It's that he did it with Shaun King, Keyshawn Johnson and Les Steckel strapped to his back.
"Until it bites us, I think that's the route we go," said Johnson, the seldom-used receiver who caught four passes for 28 yards. "Until it bites us. Play defense, when we get an opportunity to get the ball in Warrick's hands, give it to him. Let him take us to the promised land. For now, it's all on Warrick. I'm putting it all on you, Warrick."
The Bucs (8-5) began Week 14 last among the eight NFC teams still legitimately vying for the playoffs.
But with five of the seven teams ahead of them losing, the Bucs are fifth in the six-team post-season sweepstakes. That's courtesy of losses by Detroit, Philadelphia, New Orleans, St. Louis and Washington.
"I don't think anyone is going to look behind us or in front of us until the season is over," defensive tackle Chidi Ahanotu said. "It's been so tight, to look at it and keep track takes away from what you're trying to do on the field. But it's nice."
Most eyes Sunday were on Dunn. Although he had not posted back-to- back 100-yard rushing games since his rookie season, he predicted he would thrive as the Bucs' premier ballcarrier after the season- ending knee injury to Mike Alstott. Last week, he rushed for 106 yards on 20 carries. After Sunday's 22-carry performance, the first person to greet Dunn on the sideline was Alstott.
"It's one of my great days as a professional because it's one of the milestones I haven't reached before. I'm going to cherish the moment," said Dunn, who was greeted with a standing ovation when he left the game with 3:16 to play. "It meant a lot. Because, okay, for years, Mike has been the guy. I mean, he's the guy here. It means a lot because now they can think, 'We're not going to miss a beat. Warrick can stay healthy and this can be a regular thing.' That's what I want it to be. It's nice to finally be able to show what I can do, and I really haven't been able to do that since I've been here. Guys just believe in me. They know I'm the main ballcarrier."
Dunn's career day gave Dallas a dubious place in history. It was the first time in NFL history a team has given up 200 yards rushing three times in one season. Philadelphia's Duce Staley and San Francisco's Charlie Garner joined Dunn to that mark earlier this season.
"For me, I didn't rush for 200 (yards) in college," Dunn said. "It's my first one as a pro. Most guys don't do that on this level. You have elite athletes who've done that."
Given the sorry state of the Bucs passing game, Dunn may have to be the entire offense.
King, visibly affected by a sore back, posted another low-water day for his career by completing 9 of 15 passes for 65 yards. He was sacked twice.
In the past three weeks, the Bucs' net passing yardage has totaled 177 yards..
Quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen said he nearly replaced King with backup Eric Zeier in the first quarter. He admitted the Bucs won't go far unless King and the passing game improve rapidly.
"No. Certainly (Dunn) can't carry us all the way," Christensen said. "We're going to have to throw the ball better. But again, I think the way the game went, if we don't turn it over, we can live without big passing numbers. But we certainly have to throw the ball better than we did today."
Tampa Bay built a 17-0 lead in the first quarter and made it 20-0 a little more than four minutes into the second quarter.
The Cowboys fumbled the game's opening kickoff. Jason Tucker failed to field it, picked the ball up and was hit by Rabih Abdullah, who caused the fumble that Dexter Jackson recovered at the Dallas 10.
After settling for a 28-yard field goal by Martin Gramatica, the Bucs made their next try on offense count. On the first play from scrimmage, Dunn took a handoff and ran left, cutting behind a great block of Cowboys linebacker Dexter Coakley by tight end Dave Moore and outraced Phillippi Sparks to the end zone. "I hadn't done that since college," Dunn said of scoring on his first carry. "After that, that's the most tired I've been in a while. I felt it for like three or four series. I kept running on and off the field because my legs were heavy, and I was still winded a little bit."
But Dallas couldn't take a breath without messing up.
Wayne McGarrity muffed a punt and backed Dallas into bad field position at its 3. On third down, quarterback Troy Aikman's pass bounced off Chris Warren's hands and was intercepted by cornerback Brian Kelly, who returned it 9 yards for a touchdown.
Cowboys running back Emmitt Smith, making his first appearance in Tampa Bay since his rookie season, cut the lead to 20-7 with 4-yard run midway through the third quarter.
Smith finished with 80 yards on 20 carries. But it was his fourth- quarter fumble that was recovered by Kelly at the Tampa Bay 12 that killed any comeback hopes.
King connected for first downs to Johnson and Jacquez Green. But it was Dunn's 34-yard run that was the biggest play in the 88-yard drive resulting in his second score.
King has played better, but his team can reach the playoffs if it wins its remaining games.
"We've been trying to get to that point, and we're there now," King said. "We may win ugly, we may not win like everybody wants us to win. But at the end of the season, when they decide who goes into the playoffs, you don't get extra points for this or that. You get points for winning or losing. We're playing winning football. What have we won? Five out of six? So we're doing what we do this time of year. We find ways to win ballgames."