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Sometimes, just having a little faith can pay off

TAMPA — Time was, the running back was known as a hitter. Time was, the wide receiver was known as a quitter.

Once, teams worried about how much the cornerback liked his pot. Once, teams worried about how much time the linebacker spent with the police.

Not long ago, they were trouble in cleats, and teams across the NFL were running as far away from them as they could get. They were the Hole in the Wall gang, and their common ground was tattered reputations and diminished salaries.

That was before a team, and a general manager, decided to put faith in them despite their pasts.

And because of it, the Bucs suddenly look like a team with a future. This is what is known as making a play. Think of it in sports terms. Sometimes, a team cannot afford to play it safe. Sometimes, it has to go for it. Sometimes, it has to take a few risks.

You know, like drafting Mike Williams.

You know, like picking up LeGarrette Blount.

You know, like standing by Aqib Talib.

You know, like selecting Geno Hayes.

Here at the corner of One Buc Place and Second Chance Avenue, in other words, there is a reason the Bucs suddenly look young and fast and powerful. It's because they dared to, silly. It's because they bet on players other teams would not, and those players turned into a jackpot.

For the record, Bucs general manager Mark Dominik doesn't see any of the pickups as particularly risky. Beyond the headlines and the scandals, he suggests the conversation is not about renegades but about good kids who did regrettable things. The franchise put in enough hours, he said, to put its faith in the players.

"We certainly want to be a character-driven organization,'' Dominik said. "But in the NFL, there is always an element of risk-reward — if a player had a problem in college or if he didn't. I'm going to give a new person a million dollars and he's never been out the state of Washington? How is he going to react?"

For the record, Dominik said, there have been players he has removed from his draft board, too. Players who just aren't worth the trouble. On the other hand, there are investments worth making at the right price.

"My philosophy is to dig as hard as you can based on the ability of the player," Dominik said. "I think that's what Tampa Bay did back when they took (former Miami star Warren) Sapp. They dug as hard as they could, and when they traded back and he was still on the board, they took him.

"Mike Williams gave our organization every reason in the world to dig as deeply as possible because his talent was so good. Same with LeGarrette."

There were some teams, according to reports, that would not have drafted Williams at any cost. After all, he was the guy who parted ways with his Syracuse team with four games left in the season. And in football, quitting is one of the deadly sins.

And so the Bucs began to investigate. Williams, it turns out, never said "I quit" to Syracuse coach Doug Marrone. At the end of a heated meeting, he said, "I'm out of here," and he left the office. Marrone interpreted that to say Williams was leaving the team, not the meeting. In a team vote, 80 percent of the players said Williams should come back. Still, Marrone would not allow it.

According to Dominik, the Bucs put "250 to 350 man hours" into researching Williams. They talked to Marrone, and to Williams' high school coach, and to an old mentor in Buffalo. In the end, they decided other players had more baggage than Williams.

So where to pick him? That's the other part of the equation. Talentwise, Williams had first-round grades, and he would have fit nicely into the team's high second-round pick. But the Bucs decided Williams would be available later. And so they waited. Still, there were critics who said the team's fourth-round selection was too high.

Judging from his first seven games, maybe it wasn't. Williams leads the NFL in receptions by a rookie receiver (and yardage and touchdowns).

He has been personable and approachable. If you did not know his past, you would not suspect his past.

The same goes for Blount, who has been quiet and polite. He does not strike you as the enraged player in the video that almost everyone has seen. It was at the end of the game, and Oregon had lost, and Boise State linebacker Byron Hout clapped Blount on the shoulder pads and said something to him. Blount responded with a right fist that ended up costing him eight games and perhaps millions of NFL dollars.

There was something about the video, something about the rage, that offended the sensibilities of the American sports fan. Like quitting a team, punching an opponent after a game crosses a line with fans.

That was enough for some teams to take him off their draft boards. The Bucs invested 150 man hours on Blount, Dominik said, and they brought him in for a visit. Still, they did not draft him because of the glut of backs on their roster. It was only when the Titans released Blount and they had some injuries that the Bucs brought him on board.

Lately, he has been dynamic. Although he has had significant carries only in the past two weeks, he is fourth among rookie rushers. His 5.2 average is best of all rookies.

Ask yourself this: If the NFL were to hold the 2010 draft all over again, where do you think Williams would go? Where do you think Blount would go? And wouldn't you like to be the agent for both?

"Here's the thing that's different," Dominik said. "These are two incidents that are obviously highly publicized. It got almost to the point where you would have thought they (had) done something illegal. … I know (Blount) threw the punch. But when you really paint them in the light of being a bad kid … are they?

"When I think of a bad kid, I'm thinking about possession … or something to do with violence against women. I'm not thinking he's late to meetings, or he didn't take it as seriously as he should have, or he might have quit the team or not, or that he got so enraged over what might have been said that he threw a punch. Which is very taboo, obviously.

"Still, if you had the chance to meet these kids, you would walk away and say, 'I like both of these guys. They're not bad kids.' "

These are not the first eyebrow-raising athletes the Bucs have brought in. Talib, who intercepted two passes against the Cardinals including the game-clincher, tested positive for marijuana in college. That brought questions about his character and his judgment, which made him fall in the first round of the 2008 draft. (For the record, Dominik didn't draft Talib, but he has stuck by him through Talib's off-the-field problems.)

Hayes, who had an interception and caused another Sunday, had off-the-field issues of his own. NFL teams don't usually like to answer questions about Tasered linebackers.

Still, the taking of troubled athletes is a fine line and a risky investment. The career of Jerramy Stevens, for instance, was always going to end badly. And Bucs safety Tanard Jackson has shown that teams were correct in their questions of his off-the-field activities.

But the NFL is not a league where they draft from Boy Scout meetings. Dallas took a chance on Dez Bryant, four teams have taken chances on Randy Moss, five on Terrell Owens and three on Adam "Pacman" Jones. As they say, no one asks about your character in the end zone.

These days, Williams and Blount have been trouble only for opposing teams. So far, they have been twice the player and half the price. So far, they have helped to accelerate the progress of a team that needed impact players.

"Let me say this," Dominik said. "Neither Williams nor Blount have given me a reason to worry about them. Do I sit home and think I'm going to get a late-night call because of Williams and Blount? No, I don't."

So does Williams ever live down his reputation? Does Blount ever convince people there is more to him than a YouTube video? Is there trouble ahead? We'll see.

For the moment, the risks were worth taking. With every touchdown those guys score, the Bucs look a little better.

A little smarter, too.

Sometimes, just having a little faith can pay off 11/06/10 [Last modified: Saturday, November 6, 2010 4:16pm]
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