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Doug Martin returns to Bucs practice

Running back Doug Martin hasn’t played since hurting a hamstring in Week 2 against the Cardinals.
Running back Doug Martin hasn’t played since hurting a hamstring in Week 2 against the Cardinals.
Published Nov. 10, 2016

TAMPA — The running back tucked the ball under his arm, squeezing it close to his chest as he bounced right and then left through a series of orange cones, like a skier on a slalom course. His movements were in perfect choreography with the beat blaring from the loudspeakers on the field at One Buc Place.

The quick feet, the barrel chest, the legs churning like pistons all looked familiar. Could it be?

For the first time since he pulled a hamstring early in a loss to Arizona on Sept. 18, Doug Martin was back at practice Wednesday.

No sooner did the news reach social media than ESPN NFL fantasy football expert Matthew Berry posted on Twitter: "What? What, what, what?!"

File it under things you never thought you would see in the past week: the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series, Donald Trump winning the White House and Martin playing again.

It was too early to tell if Martin would be cleared for Sunday's game against the Bears. But just the presence of "Muscle Hamstrung" brought hope to a team that could use some.

The Bucs (3-5) have lost their top three running backs to injury this season, including Charles Sims and Jacquizz Rodgers. You almost forget what a special running back Martin is and how much he means to the Bucs' success.

A year ago, Martin was second to the Vikings' Adrian Peterson with 1,402 rushing yards for the season, and he scored six touchdowns. That earned him a five-year, $35.75 million contract. He had carried the ball only 25 times for 85 yards this year before he crumpled to the turf of the University of Phoenix Stadium, grabbing the hamstring.

Then on Oct. 9, the day before the Bucs were to play at Carolina, Martin aggravated the hamstring and was thrust back into the world of ice, tubs and treatment.

Now, nobody cares if a team has injuries. But the truth is that some hurt more than others.

"You've got your 22 starters, and all those 22 starters are on different levels," coach Dirk Koetter said. "You've got elite players. We have four or five guys that were in the Pro Bowl last year. Those guys are usually harder to replace. Now sometimes you have a really good guy behind him; sometimes you're kind of holding on. And that's not just the Bucs, that's everybody; you're holding on at some positions. So, there's a lot of luck involved, and then when you get hit at multiple spots — very few teams go past two deep.

"We hit a gold mine in getting Jacquizz in here, based on everything else that had happened, as technically a third back that wasn't even on our team. Again, one man's injury is another man's opportunity, and there's great stories around the league every year about guys that people weren't counting on and they step up, they get their opportunity, and they play well."

But you could argue that no player besides perhaps quarterback Jameis Winston is as valuable to the Bucs as Martin.

He makes the offensive line look good; he led the NFL in yards after contact last season. He makes the receivers look good; defenses have to bring their safeties closer to the line of scrimmage, abandoning double teams. He makes Winston look good; an elite running back like Martin is a quarterback's best friend, slowing the pass rush.

Just as important, Martin brings confidence and a little bounce to the Bucs' step.

"When you look next to you and you're used to seeing a certain guy and you know what to expect and he has skins on the wall in the league like Doug has, any time you get a guy like that back can give you a boost," Bears coach John Fox said.

Especially one running on empty like the Bucs.