TAMPA, Fla. — Against the Redskins, he was invisible. Against the Dolphins, he was a ghost. Against the Patriots, he was a memory. Against the Ravens, he was here and gone.
Oh, that Doug Martin. What an elusive back he has been this preseason.
For four weeks, you could not find Doug Martin with a GPS and a team of bloodhounds. He was a bystander, complete with instructions not to get too close to the sideline. He was a witness, but most of the time, he was in the protection program.
Say this for the former Boise State star: He finished the preseason with a sparkling clean jersey, although his helmet had one large dent. That was the result of a knee-to-the-head he suffered against New England, a blow that left all of Tampa Bay a little woozy and the coaching staff a little wary.
Mind you, Martin wasnt going to carry the ball too much as it was, but after that, coach Greg Schiano kept Martin as far away from preseason games as possible. He might as well have placed Martin in bubble wrap and put him into the vault. After all, what did Martin have to prove?
I would pace back and forth on the sideline, wanting to get in, Martin said. I would just do my best to watch the play as if I was in there.
Ah, but now we come to the regular season. And here comes dartin Martin, unleashed at last.
The question is: How good can he be so soon? Can a team find excellence simply by flipping a switch?
I dont think thats going to have an effect on me, Martin said. I practice game speed. There will be contact, but Ive played for a lot of years.
Oh, the Bucs need him. For all that has been discussed about the Bucs sputtering offense, perhaps the biggest shortcoming has been this: Except for three carries, it has been Martin-free. During this inactive summer by Martin, perhaps you have forgotten how much he means to the offense.
He is the anchor, the one who restores balance and keeps defenses on their heels.
We have big expectations for Doug, as he does for himself, Schiano said. I cant wait to get him fired up and getting him going up in New York.
As a rookie a year ago, Martin accounted for 1,936 yards (1,454 rushing and 472 on receptions). Once Martin got going, he had such burst, such balance, that you could not wait to see his next carry. He ran for 251 yards against the Raiders. For 142 against Atlanta. For 138 against Carolina. For 135 against Minnesota. For 128 against Philadelphia.
At the end, Martin was named to the Pro Bowl and to every all-rookie team. But the thing that defined Martin most was this: In his six games of 95 yards or more, the Bucs won five. In games in which he gained less, they were 2-8.
What some people forget, however, is how slowly Martin started a year ago. After four weeks in the NFL, he had rushed 71 times for a pedestrian 247 yards. In his final 12 games, Martin ran for 1,207.
I want to hit the ground running fast and never look back, Martin said.
Of course, it would help if Martin, 24, could get off to a good start against the Jets, who were 26th against the run last year.
Thats the plan, Schiano said. We need him to start quickly. I think hes prepared to do that.
He has great vision. Your eyes have to tell you what you want to do. He has good balance and burst. He has pretty good long speed. Sometimes, the smaller guys dont. If he pops one, he can run away from you.
He is just getting started, but already, there are times that Martin can draw comparisons to greatness. Admittedly, Martin has a lot of yards to catch before you can compare his numbers to backs such as Emmitt Smith and Thurman Thomas. But there are times when Martin reminds you of some of their attributes, the way he skitters through a hole, the burst with which he can leave defenders.
Lets let him do it, Schiano said. Is he capable? I think he is. I think hes capable of being a great back, not a good one.
Heres a number for you: One season in, and Martin is already 12th on the Bucs all-time rushing list.
The question is: After this preseason, how quickly can Martin be Martin again? Is it fair to expect it as quickly as Sunday? Is it reasonable to expect it against an offensive line that may be missing Carl Nicks and where Davin Joseph has seen limited play himself?
The answer? Why not? Remember, Joseph and Nicks were out most of last year. And Martin is no longer a rookie trying to figure out the rhythm of the pro game.
Can Martin be a force from the start? For the sake of the Bucs offense, he had better be.