TAMPA — Before the season began, Bucs coach Lovie Smith was envisioning his team's offense with running back Doug Martin firmly entrenched as the bell-cow ball carrier.
Then injuries happened to Martin, first to a knee, then to an ankle, sidelining the former Pro Bowl player for five of the first 10 games.
But Martin looked healthy running off the practice field Friday and was expected to return to action Sunday in Chicago, leaving the coaching staff with some of the toughest roster decisions it has had to make.
"We've had very few games where we've had really hard decisions on who's active on game day," Smith said, "but that will be the case this week."
Especially at running back.
For the first time all season, the Bucs' four backs are all expected to be healthy, though Martin and rookie Charles Sims are listed as questionable. Smith said Martin got back into his routine with a great week of practice after missing the past three games with an ankle injury.
Sims will play in his third game since returning from ankle surgery, joining Bobby Rainey and Mike James in the rotation.
"We've got a three-headed monster now," Rainey said. "(Martin) brings that spark that we're maybe looking for for the run game. If not, we've got a second guy. If not that guy, we've got a third guy."
Those options have caused the Bucs' balance in the backfield to shift repeatedly, giving different players opportunities each week.
Rainey, last year's leading rusher, had 19 carries in a Nov. 2 loss to Cleveland. Sunday against the Redskins, he ran for 4 yards on five carries and was used more in pass protection.
"If you're not getting a lot on offense, try to get a lot on special teams," Rainey said. "Try to find a way to help the team as much as possible."
Rainey's production dipped because Sims was finally healthy enough to contribute. The third-round draft pick out of West Virginia rushed 13 times and had three touches as a receiver Sunday. That's up from the 10 touches he had in his NFL debut the week before against the Falcons.
"The third game is going to be another big stride, so that will be nice," quarterbacks coach Marcus Arroyo said. "Those guys again, by committee, have done a really nice job, and all those guys are capable, and we're fortunate to have them."
Sunday that committee will add Martin again.
Smith called Martin the team's bell cow in August, and Martin's photograph stares out from billboards near Raymond James Stadium. Martin, who hasn't addressed reporters this week, got many of the reps with the first team during drills.
Smith said Martin's role will be to get "back into the mix." Martin's health will help determine how many offensive touches he gets and whether he can step into the role Smith envisioned for him months ago.
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"Yes, we would like to see one of our running backs rush for 200 yards and he becomes the bell-cow role," Smith said. "But Doug is back this week, and that's a good thing. He's looked pretty good in practice, and we feel real good about that group, whatever three or four we go with."
Contact Matt Baker at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.