TAMPA — Instead of the thwack of shoulder pads, what the Bucs heard Wednesday was the sickly thud of Doug Martin hitting bottom.
Martin, who turns 28 next month, confessed in a statement Wednesday, later confirmed by the NFL, that he had been suspended for four games for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing drugs. Martin also said he will enter a treatment facility.
"This is not the season I envisioned, and I have let everyone down, including myself," Martin said in the statement.
Turns out the Bucs running back was more Muscle than Hamster.
Martin said he learned about the suspension last week and had numerous discussions with people close to him, including coach Dirk Koetter. Unless you believe in coincidence, you have to imagine that conversation took place before Koetter decided to bench his two-time Pro Bowl running back before Saturday's 31-24 loss at New Orleans, the biggest game of Tampa Bay's season.
The rationale would be easy: It was no time to play Martin, who has, as general manager Jason Licht said Wednesday, "issues that are much larger than the game of football."
Koetter took some arrows for his decision, and Wednesday he declined comment in advance of Martin's statement.
Quarterback Jameis Winston, before learning of the suspension Wednesday, said he had asked Martin before the Saints game if he was all right.
"I can only do my part to Doug and be there, be his friend, be his teammate and be his quarterback, and just check in on him," Winston said. "But everything that's beyond my reach, I can't control."
In a way, Martin's suspension might turn out to be the best thing that happens to him. Best-case scenario: He gets the help he needs, begins serving the suspension and is back by Week 4 of 2017. But Martin will pay a hefty price for his drug use. He will lose about $1.47 million in salary over the four games. It also will void the guarantee on his 2017 base salary of $7 million, which is a mixed blessing for the Bucs. They get out of a potentially awful contract but still have Martin under their control.
However, while the team can support Martin, running back suddenly becomes a very important position the Bucs might now have to address in the draft.
Face it, with or without his problem, it was getting harder for the Bucs to count on Martin. He missed six games with a hamstring injury he suffered in Week 2 at Arizona. When he returned, Martin was a shell of the guy who was the league's second-leading rusher in 2015. He was running with great effort, but something was a little off. He finishes the season averaging 2.9 yards per carry, the lowest among all running backs with 100-plus carries.
When healthy, Martin is a 1,400-yard rusher. But he has had injuries in three of his five pro seasons.
As much as anything, the Bucs' failure to run the ball consistently has doomed them this year.
Whom do they have left? Jacquizz Rodgers had their only two 100-yard rushing performances this season, but he has never carried the mail as the lead running back and can be a free agent. The Bucs would be wise to re-sign Rodgers, but he will be 27 in February and he has never rushed for 500 yards in a season. Peyton Barber? Russell Hansbrough? Nope.
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It's a shame, really. Martin is a good teammate, well-liked in the locker room. Sometimes players are enticed to try performance-enhancing drugs to recover faster from injury. But judging from his statement, Martin's issues seem deeper than that.
A report on nfl.com said one of the drugs Martin used was Adderall, a stimulant commonly used for treating attention-deficit disorder. For athletes, it's like an amphetamine that can boost energy and sharpen focus.
"On the field, I must be strong and determined to push through both the pain and injuries to become an elite NFL running back," Martin said. "Off the field, I have tried that same approach in my personal life. My shortcomings in this area have taught me both that I cannot win these personal battles alone and there is no shame in asking for help."
He's right. The only shame is that he didn't ask for it sooner, before putting his life, career and the Bucs' season in jeopardy.