The Buccaneers have been in training camp for more than a week now and their first preseason game is only a few days away. Still, the most highly anticipated position battle — running back — is nowhere close to being decided.
The reason is simple.
According to coach Greg Schiano, the winner will not be determined in practice. Rather, it will be decided by who best performs in games.
"You can look at these guys in protection and carrying the ball, but until they have to break a tackle and make someone miss in a game when they're getting tackled live, it's awfully hard to evaluate them,'' Schiano said.
Schiano's ruling doesn't discount the importance of practice. A running back's knowledge of the scheme, ability to recognize a blitz and pass-catching skills can be evaluated in practice — and they will be.
But whether the bulk of the carries goes to incumbent power back LeGarrette Blount, versatile rookie Doug Martin or rookie speedster Michael Smith will be decided by their preseason performances.
"I can see why that is because as a running back you have to be able to break tackles and we're not tackling out here,'' Martin said. "In practice, you focus on the details of your position and showing the coaches you can be consistent. But in games you have to produce.''
The games start Friday, when Tampa Bay heads to Miami. Schiano hopes to have a clear-cut winner by the time preseason ends but won't force the issue.
"You really don't want to be alternating quarterbacks, but with running backs I almost think in this day and age it is a necessity,'' he said. "One guy cannot take all the carries as big and strong and violent as the defensive players are.
"So, if one guy (emerges), then certainly, you let it happen. But you don't make it happen. I think that's where you make a mistake — when you are trying to make something happen.''
Carry that weight
A lot of NFL teams are only as good as the quarterback or defense allows. But Pro Bowl LG Carl Nicks believes the Bucs will be only as good as their offensive line.
"We're going to be the leaders of this team, I believe, and we're going to win and lose games off our backs,'' Nicks said. "That's how I see it and that's how our whole offensive line has got to see it."
With three Pro Bowlers — LT Donald Penn, RG Davin Joseph and Nicks — the line certainly should be a strength. Nicks likes the idea of leading this team.
"If you can protect the quarterback and run the ball, why should you lose?" Nicks said. "So, I put it on my back and I think the whole offensive line does, too."
Bucs QB Josh Freeman did not have a stellar season last year, but he was among the league leaders in at least one important category. According to stats compiled by Football Outsiders, Freeman ranked fourth in broken tackles by a quarterback with 11.
The Outsiders numbers say Freeman broke seven tackles behind the line of scrimmage (third most in the league) and four beyond the line of scrimmage (fourth most). Only Tim Tebow and Michael Vick (22 each) and Cam Newton (13) broke more tackles than Freeman.