TAMPA — Football was no fantasy to Doug Martin as a rookie last season. But in the statistically driven imaginary game that can turn anyone into an NFL general manager, Martin was the 27th-ranked running back by ESPN heading into 2012.
Of course, there was a make-believe quality about Martin in his first year with the Buccaneers.
"I felt like it clicked for me probably the fourth or fifth game," he said. "Around there. I got a feel for the speed of the game and how quickly the holes close. After that, things started to slow down for me, my vision opened up and I was able to do what I do."
But fantasy football geeks can tell you precisely when Martin went from sleeper to keeper. Through six games, the former Boise State star rushed for 408 yards, a ho-hum 4.1 per carry.
Even coach Greg Schiano, who traded up to select Martin 31st overall and likened the 5-foot-9, 215-pound ball of butcher knives to the Ravens' Ray Rice, whom Schiano coached at Rutgers, expected more.
Then came back-to-back games beginning in Week 8 with a nationally televised upset at Minnesota in which Martin rushed 29 times for 135 yards and a touchdown and caught three passes for 79 yards, including a 64-yarder for a score.
"That Vikings game, I was like, 'Okay, I think I've got this,' " Martin said.
A week later, Martin tapped a few legends on the shoulder pads. He ran all over the Raiders for 251 yards and four touchdowns on 25 carries, including three gallops to the end zone of more than 40 yards, an NFL record. The 486 yards of total offense over two games had only been accomplished four other times.
Talk about fantasy: Only Jim Brown, O.J. Simpson and Walter Payton — who accomplished it twice — had ever known what it felt like to be Martin.
Following the Bucs' practices last week, Martin squinted into the sun and contemplated what he could do this season for an encore.
"I had a great season last year, and I just want to get better all around," Martin, 24, said. "Whether it's running the ball, in the pass game, catching the ball — just that extra 2 percent to step my game up."
What can Martin, who had an alarmingly high 368 touches as a rookie, do better in 2013?
"That's a good question because I think he looks really good out there right now," Schiano said. "And my whole thing with Doug is, No. 1, continue to get a better understanding through (running backs coach Earnest) Byner and the rest of our staff, just a better understanding of what all your job is. And then, physically, taking care of himself, and me and the staff taking care of him as well. I think that's critical."
Martin's 319 rushing attempts last season were the fourth-most in the league. The Bucs hope Mike James, a rookie out of Miami, is versatile enough to spell Martin a few more times than LeGarrette Blount did a year ago. But it's hard for Schiano to take his best offensive weapon off the field.
"Look, we know what he can do. It isn't like he's a rookie and we're trying to figure it out," Schiano said. "So we've got to make sure we get him ready to play, don't take it for granted he's going to be the same guy because none of us are, right? But once he has shown that he's ready, we've got to make sure we get him to Game 1 and through all the rest of our games healthy. Those are the two things I think are important."
Martin has split his time between Los Angeles and Boise this offseason, preparing his body for the rigors of another NFL season. He said he runs four times a week and tries to remain balanced in his preparation: "But I've got to work on the legs."
Now Martin has a new ranking: 57th. But that's not a fantasy football rating. It's where he stacks up among the 100 top players in the league at all positions in a player's poll conducted by nfl.com.
"I'm grateful for it," he said. "I'm honored for my peers to pick me that high. It just tells me I need to work hard to get back into that spot or go higher."