By all rights, he shouldn't be here. Not now, not like this. A guy his age should have turned the uniform in a while back. A guy his size should have broken down long ago. The truth is, running backs are on borrowed time from the moment they enter the NFL. If it's not a specific injury, it is the accumulation of all the pounding. If it is not the deterioration of speed, it is the diminishing of desire. You might want to know, the day he was drafted was one of the greatest afternoons for running backs in NFL history. Three of the tailbacks taken that day would combine to make 10 Pro Bowls. Two more had multiple 1,000-yard seasons. In all, nearly two dozen running backs were drafted that April weekend in 1997.
And only Warrick Dunn remains.
The guy who looked like a tweener. The guy who supposedly couldn't run between the tackles. He is 33 now and is a featured running back for a team chasing a division title — and possibly more.
The littlest one in the bunch turned out to be the toughest of them all.
"Some things you can't put into words, like that guy's toughness," linebacker Derrick Brooks said. "I don't think he ever imagined being a featured guy when we signed him, but he's taken on that role."
He's gone from sharing the workload to being Tampa Bay's best hope in the running game now that Earnest Graham is out for the season. Given Dunn's age, that makes him a curious anomaly in today's NFL.
He is on pace to have 179 carries and will probably go even higher. In the past 20 years, only three running backs (Emmitt Smith, Marcus Allen and Ottis Anderson) have had more carries at this, um, decrepit stage of life.
Yet, you watch Dunn run and there is no sign of his slowing down. You watch him spin out of a tackle and it could be 1998, all over again. He is averaging 4.6 yards per carry, which is even better than his career numbers.
So how about it? Is Brooks' assessment correct? Can a guy who weighs in the 180-pound vicinity actually be one of the toughest sons of guns on a football field?
"Me? Nah, I'm really a softie. I'm definitely a softie," Dunn said with a grin. "When I think of tough, I think of heart. Determination. I really don't know how to describe it, but I am determined."
Gale Sayers. Jim Brown. Neal Anderson. Barry Sanders. Chuck Foreman. Earl Campbell. They were all retired by 30. Tiki Barber. Eddie George. O.J. Simpson. Jim Taylor. Marshall Faulk. Curtis Martin. They were done by 32.
Many of the greatest names in NFL history were already at home at this point in Dunn's career. Some were forced out of the NFL by injuries. Others just grew weary of the game or the abuse.
For running back is like no other position on the field. Quarterbacks are more vulnerable, but league rules protect them like Christmas ornaments. There's a reason Brett Favre is still starting at 39 and Jeff Garcia at 38. Receivers are susceptible, but they touch the ball a fraction of the time and are generally tackled downfield by guys their own size. There is a reason Isaac Bruce and Marvin Harrison are still receiving threats at 36.
It is running backs who are at the greatest risk. They're the ones running into 300-pound defensive linemen. They're the ones blocking 250-pound blitzing linebackers. They're the ones asking their knees to make unnatural cuts on turf, and they're the ones generally found at the bottom of any pileup.
That Dunn has played this position for 12 seasons and is still zipping through cracks and turning upfield is a marvel. That he has done it at a lighter weight than anyone else among history's top 20 rushers is amazing.
"I really think it's my running style," Dunn said. "God has given me a knack for feeling things and seeing things on the field that most people don't see. It's this sense of knowing when to get down. I've been lucky."
He has made some concessions to age. He watches what he eats. He has adjusted his training schedule. He no longer has the ego or insecurity of youth that can make a player unnecessarily push himself to extremes on a practice field or in a weight room.
Dunn also has benefited from having strong partners in the backfield. First, it was Mike Alstott. Later, it was T.J. Duckett and Jerious Norwood in Atlanta. Of the 23 running backs in NFL history with at least 10,000 rushing yards, Dunn is the only one without a 300-carry season.
In other words, sharing the workload has saved the wear and tear that seemingly did in bigger backs such as Corey Dillon, Ricky Watters and George in recent years. And now, at a time when so many of his peers are already heading toward pensions, Dunn is still running forward.
Dunn didn't ask for 20 carries a game, but he has no problem carrying the load.
"I've always expected to get the ball," Dunn said. "That's just my competitive nature."
You could say it is necessity that has made him a No. 1 tailback at 33, but you could also say it is good fortune. Both his, and the Buccaneers.
John Romano can be reached at [email protected]
Sunday, November 30, 2008, Section C * * * *