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As playoffs near, Bucs running backs seem to have fresh legs, perspective

The tailback rotation, diverse and dysfunctional, could become darn critical in January.
Bucs running back Leonard Fournette (28) trips over Detroit Lions middle linebacker Jarrad Davis (40) during the first half of Tampa Bay's 47-7 rout of the Lions last weekend. (AP Photo/Lon Horwedel)
Bucs running back Leonard Fournette (28) trips over Detroit Lions middle linebacker Jarrad Davis (40) during the first half of Tampa Bay's 47-7 rout of the Lions last weekend. (AP Photo/Lon Horwedel) [ LON HORWEDEL | AP ]
Published Dec. 30, 2020|Updated Dec. 30, 2020

TAMPA — Stop and assess the playoff road before the Bucs. Consider its daunting length, the unavoidable potholes and bumps, even the projected patches of ice (see Green Bay).

Spanning it will require fresh legs, perhaps several sets of them. Which leads us to Tampa Bay’s running back room – a diverse, mildly dysfunctional blend of vigor and veteran savvy, brawn and burst. With a liberal amount of humility tossed in.

Think about it: Third-year speedster Ronald Jones, whose fleetness was offset by maddening inconsistency his first two years, enters Sunday’s regular season finale 100 rushing yards shy of 1,000. Veterans LeSean McCoy and Leonard Fournette, whom many envisioned providing a prolific thunder-and-lightning package when the season dawned, have been relegated to backup roles.

And rookie Ke’Shawn Vaughn performs spot duty while mostly observing and absorbing.

“The room by itself holds a lot of weight,” Vaughn said.

Somehow, it’s working. Maybe not at maximum efficiency, but serviceable enough to complement the team’s Canton-bound quarterback.

“I’m used to being the whole offense,” said Fournette, who posted two 1,000-yard seasons in his three years in Jacksonville before being waived in August.

“So I think my mindset has changed differently this whole year as far as being the complete player, as far as rooting for someone, cheering them on, things like that. So even though it wasn’t the best year as far as my stats and everything, I think the growth in me was amazing now.”

Not the sort of sound bite one would have anticipated from Fournette when he signed his one-year deal with the Bucs on Sept. 6. At that point, who knew Coach Bruce Arians would remain steadfastly loyal to Jones during his ebbs (only 28 catches on 42 targets) and flows (192 rushing yards in Week 10 at Carolina)?

Who knew McCoy (15 receptions, 10 carries) would appear in only periodic cameos? Who could’ve envisioned Fournette (92 carries, 354 yards, six touchdowns) being a healthy scratch three weeks ago against the Vikings?

“It was difficult,” Fournette said.

But what could’ve spawned an assortment of bruised egos and inflammatory quotes instead has produced a sequence of complementary performances and an unlikely fraternity.

“I think it’s been the best thing for me having someone older in our room,” Fournette, 25, said of McCoy, 32.

“And I think just him being there, just even through my tough times when I wasn’t starting, he’s told me like, ‘Man, it’s all about God’s plan.’ Because I’m not used to that, coming from being a starter to sharing the ball.”

With Fournette inactive against Minnesota, McCoy spelled Jones for 32 yards on four consecutive runs in a 26-14 triumph. When Jones went to the reserve/COVID-19 list, Fournette totaled 131 yards (83 on the ground) and three rushing touchdowns in wins against the Falcons and Lions.

Vaughn also stepped in at Detroit, and had his best day as a pro (15 carries, 62 yards).

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“I’ve just handled it like I was supposed to, like a pro,” Fournette said of his increased role at Atlanta and Detroit.

“Despite of whatever occurs on our team, we have four or five running backs that can always fulfill that job and come in and do what we have to do. I had to get an opportunity to help the team out and that’s what I did.”

While the unit hasn’t been especially prolific (the Bucs’ 95 rushing yards a game rank 28th in the NFL), it has eclipsed 100 yards in two of the last three games, ratcheting the effectiveness of Tom Brady’s play-action.

Perhaps more importantly, the unit hasn’t lost a fumble in more than six weeks.

“It’s extremely important,” Arians said. “Every week we have to win the turnover battle, that’s for sure. That’s the first thing we always talk about — protecting the football and protecting the quarterback, then taking it away.”

Back to that playoff road.

Say the Bucs endure a wild-card slugfest against the NFC East champion, then have to slog things out on snowy turf in Green Bay? Fournette’s legs are fresh. So are McCoy’s and Vaughn’s. Jones is coming off two inactive weeks (due to COVID-19 protocols) and should be re-charged physically if he can protect his fractured pinkie.

Suddenly, there seems to be a lot of weight in that room.

“Everything is on the line,” Fournette said.

“It’s just doing everything right and helping out my guys in my room and also other players on the team just to get better as a whole. I know we’re going to need everyone — all hands in — to go to the Super Bowl.”

Related: Arians on who owns offense: 'It's the Bucs offense and it's pretty damn good'

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