TAMPA — In a previous life, he might have retaliated. Leonard Fournette could’ve responded to the taunts of Eagles linebacker Genard Avery with some shade, or even a shove.
But assessing the moment, with his team up by only six late in the fourth quarter, Playoff Lenny deferred to Poised Lenny, and said nothing. Avery, who had pushed Fournette out of bounds after a 2-yard pickup, was whistled for a 15-yard taunting infraction.
The penalty moved the Bucs to their own 42-yard line. From there, they picked up three more first downs to salt away a 28-22 win.
“My biggest thing growing up, our coach (former LSU running backs coach Jabbar Juluke) always taught us a cool head wins a hot game,” Fournette recalled.
“So I knew in that moment when (Avery) was talking his talk, I would’ve said something back, and if they would’ve went down and scored on us, the loss would’ve been on me. So I just try to keep my composure in the big moments like that, just knowing it’s bigger than me and think about my team.”
Several factors might have attributed to Fournette’s refusal to chirp back: maturity, newfound contentment, focus, even a team-first ethos. Fact is, all those virtues have converged in the last 10 months to reshape Fournette’s outlook, and possibly his long-term future.
Once seemingly on the cusp of NFL unemployment, Fournette, still only 26, just might be performing his way to a longer-term deal in Tampa Bay.
“He’s fit in,” Bucs coach Bruce Arians said. “He found his niche.”
In the last three weeks, Fournette has evolved into one of the league’s most productive offensive weapons. His 376 yards from scrimmage (240 rushing, 136 receiving) in the last three contests rank third in the league behind only Titans running back Derrick Henry (463) and Colts running back Jonathan Taylor (441).
With 545 total yards to this point, he’s currently on a pace to eclipse his personal single-season record (1,674 yards) set in his final season with the Jaguars in 2019.
“I was doing the same thing in Jacksonville, it just was on the opposite end — we were losing,” Fournette said after Wednesday’s full-pads workout at AdventHealth Training Center.
“It didn’t get noticed like that because we were on the losing end, but I’ve been doing it. At this point, whatever happens happens. We have great running backs all around the board, and I feel like each one of those guys can do the same thing I’m doing.”
Yet Arians clearly has deferred to Fournette, whom he says has evolved into a “really good” three-down back. In the last three contests (all wins), Fournette has received a handoff or been targeted for a pass 70 total times. The other three backs — Ronald Jones, Giovani Bernard and Ke’Shawn Vaughn — have a combined 59 touches/targets for the season.
“When ‘RoJo’ (Jones) got hurt (late in the 2020 season), (Fournette) took over and he’s not looking back,” Arians said. “It’s hard for ‘RoJo’ to get back out there unless he gets hurt, so it’s nice to have both of them, that’s for sure.”
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A pass-catching liability in 2020, when he had nine drops, Fournette has caught 25 of the 30 passes targeted to him, with only three drops. He says the improvement is a byproduct of extra work with Tom Brady, each day.
Similarly, he and Brady have begun meeting each Friday with other backs and blockers to go over the run game.
“The first couple of weeks, we were all right, we weren’t where we wanted to be,” Fournette said. “So we spend an hour after work every Friday going over the runs throughout the whole week: see what we liked or what we’re good at, and what runs we disliked, and just try to work from there and get better.”
Such sound bites emit a radically different tone from a year ago, when Fournette’s well-chronicled disillusionment with his part-time role led to him being a healthy scratch for one game (Dec. 13 vs. the Vikings) and nearly getting released. It took Jones’ quad injury and COVID-19 bout for Fournette to get an opportunity in the postseason, where he flourished.
“I think it’s just, at the end of the day, it’s timing,” said Fournette, who totaled 448 yards and four touchdowns in four playoff games last winter.
“I guess last year at the beginning of the season just wasn’t my time. I had to go through what I had to go through for myself, I guess, to help me out spiritually and mentally. And I can say last year overall, it made me a better man.”
Now, an extended tenure with the Bucs seems plausible, especially with Vaughn being the only back under contract with the team past 2021. While Arians warned again Wednesday that a lot can transpire in the final two-thirds of the season, Fournette so far has performed his way into serious contract conjecture.
“This organization is different,” said Fournette, who signed a new one-year deal with the Bucs in March. “They take care of their people here, they understand their people, they understand their players, too. And when you get that kind of love back, you’ll work your tail off for anybody that’s doing that for you.”
Contact Joey Knight at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls
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