They used to say North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith was the only one who could hold Michael Jordan to under 20 points — by underutilizing him.
It's starting to feel a little like that with Doug Martin, who can only be held under 100 yards rushing in a game by the Bucs.
For the second time in three weeks, in a game in which the Bucs trailed by one score in the fourth quarter, Martin was asked to be a spectator, not spectacular.
In Sunday's 24-17 loss to the Saints, who own the worst rushing defense in the league and couldn't stop paint from running on them, Martin had 11 carries for 81 yards, including a 14-yard touchdown.
His first touch in the third quarter went for 22 yards. His last carry in the fourth quarter went for 24 yards and gave the Bucs a first down at their 44 trailing by a touchdown with 4:41 to play. From there, the Bucs erred it out. Jameis Winston threw three straight incompletions and the Bucs punted.
They never got the football back.
"I think that just happens, and that's just the answer we're going to give," coach Lovie Smith said. "First off, how many plays, time of possession, there's a lot of things instead of just Doug didn't get the ball that many times. When you don't convert on third downs, it can stop drives. I think you have to look at the full context of it all and we end up getting the results we did."
Smith might be right.
But on day when the Saints ran Tim Hightower 28 times, how does the NFL's second-leading rusher only get 11 carries? And the Saints have Drew Brees at quarterback.
Speaking of context, weren't the Bucs just at the intersection of Whoops and We Forgot About Doug two weeks ago?
You remember. The Bucs led the Colts 12-6 at halftime and Martin finished with 97 yards on 14 carries, including a 56-yard run. Tampa Bay was outscored 19-0 in the second half and Martin had only three more touches after his long gallop, making the Bucs the first team this season to freeze their own running back.
"I think, me included, we all got a little bit frustrated, maybe got away from what we should've been doing," offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter said at the time. "I probably should've ran the ball more after those first two series (of the second half)."
Right here, let's say a word about Koetter. If the Bucs have made a better hire at offensive coordinator in the last 20 years, they never introduced him. Koetter took two rookie offensive linemen, a rookie quarterback, clay and baling wire to piece together an offense that has been the strength of the team. He's accountable and honest. Lying down, he's still the most upright guy in town.
To be honest, Koetter dialed up some big plays at the end of Sunday's game. He had running back Charles Sims split wide against linebacker Dannell Ellerbe. Sims beat Ellerbe by 5 yards. Problem was, Winston overthrew Sims by 5 more.
Stay updated on the Buccaneers
Subscribe to our free Bucs RedZone newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
On third and 10, Winston fired at strike to rookie receiver Donteea Dye that would have been a first down at the Saints' 35. The pass was dropped. The drive Dyed.
"We had opportunities to complete (the) pass, pass, pass," Smith said of the last series. "Yes, you can look at that. It's so easy to second guess afterward, but when you're trying to win … and we completed some passes. The last touchdown we had was a pass. So you can complete passes, too. We had good matchups with this defense against the pass. But today, after we lost like we did? Yes. Easy to say."
Conspiracy theorists suggest the Bucs are keeping Martin's rushing numbers down to make him easier to re-sign. But he's only 37 yards behind NFL rushing leader Adrian Peterson, so that dog won't hunt. Besides, Martin will be a free agent and will decide where he plays next season. Coaches don't care what a player makes except yards.
Winston is terrific and big plays come in the passing game. But Martin has 13 runs of more than 20 yards this season, the most in the NFL. And while it's true the Bucs only had nine possessions in the game and 52 offensive snaps, 33 of those were passes with only 19 runs.
Martin isn't sitting with owners on the plane or lobbying for the football more.
"As a running back, you have to want a lot of carries," he said. "But due to the situation of the game, I think we were down 14 (points), you know, you kind of stay away from the run and that's what the coaches thought we needed to do to get ahead."
Guess sometimes, it's not always good to be like Mike.