We could be nice. We could ease into this thing by talking about how hard Doug Martin worked in the offseason to become leaner, stronger and faster. • We could talk about that easy smile or his aw-shucks, I'm-just-here-to-help-the-team humility. Maybe throw in an anecdote about signing autographs to show he remains a fan favorite. • But let's get straight to it, shall we? • When you talk about the Bucs running back, the first place — really, the only place — to start is here: • Hey Doug, you any good anymore? • Or, to be even more blunt: What the heck happened to you? • Martin gets it. He knows what we're talking about. • "This league," Martin said, "is about what have you done for me lately?" • Lately, Martin hasn't done much.
After a spectacular rookie season, Martin has turned in two seasons that have been plagued by injuries and an alarming lack of production. His career is at a crossroads. No longer a kid, the 26-year-old enters his fourth season and, frankly, the Bucs have no idea if the former first-round pick still has what it takes to be an effective back in this league. It's why they declined a fifth-year option on his contract.
Now the Bucs have little time to figure out Martin's future. Because as much as the focus seems to be around rookie quarterback Jameis Winston, the offense (and Winston's season) will be a lot more productive if the Bucs can move the ball on the ground.
And while many point to Tampa Bay's depth at running back with Bobby Rainey, Mike James and Charles Sims, the truth is none of them has the talent of Martin. If the Bucs are going to run the ball, Martin must lead the way.
"Definitely a key for us," Bucs coach Lovie Smith said. "We talked about being able to establish the run. Doug will be the lead guy doing that, so it's very important that we open up some holes and let him do his thing."
Back in 2012, Martin did his thing. He was a workhorse, carrying the ball 319 times. His 1,454 rushing yards were fifth-most in the NFL. He produced five 100-yard rushing games, including a franchise-record 251 in a four-touchdown performance at Oakland. He caught 49 passes that year, too.
Martin's rookie season suggested the Bucs had found themselves a special player, an elite back.
Then it all kind of just fell apart.
A torn labrum cut his 2013 season to only six games. But even before the injury, he seemed off. His yards-per-carry went down a full yard to a pedestrian 3.6. Last year, Martin became more of a concern. He looked slow, unsure, lost at times. In 11 games, he rushed for 494 yards, and 108 came on two runs. His yards-per-carry was only 3.7.
Last year was supposed to be the comeback season. Now here we are in 2015, saying pretty much the same things that we were saying last summer. But now 2012 is even further in the rearview mirror.
"I don't know about 2012 and, last year, none of us performed the way we needed to," Smith said. "I just know Doug has been great through the offseason program. Seems like he is running hard out there right now. No complaints. Again, he, like the rest of us, plans on performing a lot better this year and he'll get an opportunity to."
Still, can Martin be an elite back again?
"I already feel that way; I've always felt that way," Martin said. "I've had to deal with nagging injuries. That's not an excuse. I need to keep my body in shape and do the things out here that the coaches want me to do and play my role, and things will fall into place."
We'll have to wait to see what offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter has dialed up for Martin, but he already knows what Martin wants.
"A couple of years ago, he was getting a lot of touches," Koetter said. "All the great running backs I've been around — Fred Taylor, Maurice Jones-Drew, Steven Jackson and Michael Turner — you know what they said to me? Give me the rock and I'll make yards. I'm sure that's what Doug is saying, too."
Actually, Martin is saying that he is willing to do whatever is asked, whether that means 10 touches a game or 30.
He's ready for more work, he says. He spent the offseason in California with a new workout routine that has lowered his weight and body fat and increased his stamina. Right around 220 pounds, Martin knows he is playing to, perhaps, stay with the Bucs and maybe even stay in the league.
"Contract year, (but) I've got to put that behind me," Martin said. "I've got to grind, just play. I've worked my butt off in the offseason and I can't wait to get back on the field. … I just want to get back out there and show the world that I can be the Doug Martin that I was in 2012."
He knows that there are many who doubt he can be that player again.
"I'm just going to do my thing," Martin said. "I'm going to go out and play my hardest and try to be as consistent as I can. And, hopefully, turn the doubters into believers."
After the past two seasons, we will have to see before we believe.