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Jones: Most important Buc may surprise you (w/video)

TAMPA

Who is the Bucs' most important piece?

Well, when you think of the Bucs, you think of Gerald McCoy, defensive star and team spokesman. Of course you think of rookie quarterback Jameis Winston. He's the guy who is supposed to lead the Bucs out of the dregs of the NFL.

You think of tackling machine Lavonte David and big-play receiver Mike Evans. You think of coach Lovie Smith.

But the most important piece? The most valuable Buc?

Watch the games. Read the stat sheets. Look for the rare victories and then check to see who had the biggest impact.

The most important Buc — these days, anyway — is running back Doug Martin.

He might not be the best football player on the team. He is not the team's most consistent or even most reliable. But when Martin is at his best, so are the Bucs.

Just look at Sunday. Martin was at his best and the Bucs lit up the scoreboard. The running back carried the ball 24 times for 123 yards. He caught three passes for 35 yards. He scored three touchdowns. Because of that kind of impact, the Bucs posted the most points in the Lovie era and picked up a much-needed 38-31 victory against the Jaguars.

"He's a tremendous asset to this team," Winston said. "This was just smash-mouth football. We pounded that football and when you're able to force your will upon someone else and you have a running back that just takes a beating and a beating and getting 4 yards and then popping one for 20, that's great football."

That's how Martin and the Bucs operated Sunday. Martin would drip, drip, drip and then the floodgates would open. There were plenty of runs for 2 yards, 4 yards, 1 yard. But then he ripped off runs of 14, 39, 20 and 13 yards and finished with his most productive rushing day since September of 2013.

"Just keep on punching," Martin said, "and eventually something will pop."

Just like a play in the third quarter that showed Martin still has the moves that made him a first-round pick. He took a handoff from Winston, sprinted to the left side of the line, found no opening, slipped farther outside, juked a defender and picked up 13 yards for a first down.

"That's because I was into the flow of the game," Martin said. Then he smiled when asked if a run like that gets him excited.

"It does," Martin said. "That gets me hyped up."

And it lays the groundwork for the offense, making life easier on Winston and play-caller Dirk Koetter.

Pounding the rock with Martin. And Charles Sims, too, who rushed for 51 yards.

"That's how the foundation of this game is made," Winston said.

It's certainly the foundation for an offense that doesn't quite trust its rookie quarterback who had been a turnover dispenser in his first four games. Nothing is more prudent, nothing is more productive, nothing is more safe than turning around and handing the ball to No. 22.

"I've talked about how well Doug Martin has played every game this year, through the offseason, training camp," Smith said. "He's supposed to have success right now. He ran hard. … Just an outstanding job by him."

It has been something of a renaissance year for Martin. His rookie year, you might remember, had him among the elite backs in the game with nearly 1,500 yards rushing and close to 500 yards receiving. You could place his name alongside any back in football.

What followed were two subpar, injury-plagued seasons that left many wondering if Martin was washed up just three seasons into his career.

Granted, it has only been five games this season, but Martin is looking a lot like he did during his 2012 rookie season. His 4.5 yards per carry is his best since his 4.6 yards per carry in 2012. He is on pace to rush for just shy of 1,300 yards, assuming he stays healthy.

Sounds like an elite back, doesn't it? Sounds like the Martin of old, doesn't it?

"I never doubted myself," Martin said.

Good for the Bucs and good for Martin, considering he is in a contract year. Not that he has thought about that.

"Not at all," Martin said. "If I stick to my job and do everything that's in my power, everything else will fall into place."

It wouldn't be a shock if Martin did not return to Tampa Bay next season. The running back position isn't what it used to be. The shelf life for backs seems to get shorter all the time. Martin, even now at the age of 26, could very well be on the back end of his career. That's not an indictment of Martin, but simply how running backs are viewed these days.

But then you consider what the Bucs look like when Martin is the bell-cow running back and you wonder if it would be a mistake to let him get away. For now, and the foreseeable future, who do you trust more with the football, Martin or Winston?

Until Winston develops from game-manager to game-changer (which could take a couple of years), Martin remains the centerpiece of the offense.

And the Bucs' most valuable asset.

Jones: Most important Buc may surprise you (w/video) 10/11/15 [Last modified: Sunday, October 11, 2015 8:49pm]
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