TAMPA, Fla. – Doug Martin hates the nickname, but it seems to keep resurfacing.
"What's that they call him?" asked teammate and offensive lineman Demar Dotson after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 20-14 preseason loss to the Miami Dolphins on Saturday. "Helmet monster?"
It's actually "Muscle hamster," though "Helmet monster" is perhaps more fitting for such a menacing rusher. Martin is, like his label suggests, hard to track and harder to stop. He's withstood quite a bit in two seasons in the pros. The Bucs' franchise was completely overhauled this offseason, with a new coach, general manager, offensive coordinator, quarterback, receivers, and even uniforms. Yet there's Martin, still front and center – despite a torn labrum that cost him most of the 2013 season.
The Bucs drafted running back Charles Sims in May, and there was wonder what that meant for Martin considering Bobby Rainey and Mike James combined for three 100-yard rushing games in Martin's absence last year. Sims impressed in rookie camp, and although Martin was a Pro Bowler in his only full season, names of star rushers like LeSean McCoy always come up before his.
Yet after two preseason games in 2014, the Tampa offensive line is thin and shaky, Sims is out 12 to 14 weeks with an ankle injury, and James is now sidelined at least for a few days with a shoulder ailment. Suddenly Martin is reemerging as a savior for Bucs fans and fantasy owners alike.
Martin's upset that his running mates aren't healthy, but he's not at all offended that many people might have forgotten just how good he is.
"I'm just laying low in the weeds," he said by phone on Sunday. "Ready to pounce, ready to attack. I like it that way: lay in the weeds and pounce unexpectedly."
That pounce showed up Saturday in a short appearance against the Dolphins. Martin got the ball from new quarterback Josh McCown on the second play of the game and immediately juked safety Louis Delmas before hurtling forward for a good gain. "I can see that burst," McCown said. "I can see that toughness." Both the burst and the toughness are vintage Martin, even though the third-year player really hasn't had enough time to be vintage.
There's reason to believe Martin will be better than vintage this season. When he found out Jeff Tedford was coming in as the Bucs' new offensive coordinator, he called up former Cal running back Shane Vereen to get some intel on the new scheme.
"I'm loving the offense," Martin said. "It's not just the running. The route combinations are something I like – something that challenged me from the beginning."
Fullback Jovorskie Lane called the offense "perfect for Doug."
"It's a gap team," he said. "It's a gap offense. And he's a downhill runner."
Part of what's somewhat misleading about Martin is his size. He's short (listed at 5-foot-9), so he's assumed to be a scatback, like Barry Sanders. But he's far more "muscle" than "hamster."
"He's a hard runner," said Rainey, Tampa's leading rusher last year. "Something he does really well. I'm more of a finesse runner and one thing I've seen from him is knowing when to hit it hard."
Yes, Martin moves fast. But he's more damaging in the way he moves forward. And that will be needed behind an offensive line that hasn't been as airtight or healthy as everyone in Tampa would like. Dancing behind the line of scrimmage won't work as well as simply plowing ahead.
"You don't have to hold blocks that long with Doug," Dotson said. "He's made our offensive line look good. He has made guys miss."
And although Sims was brought in partially to give Martin a lighter load, Martin might thrive with more carries.
"Every running back wants every carry to go to him," he said. "I know it's a physical game. But I can take a heavy workload."
He said he's "95 percent" ready, and that extra five percent will come from more reps.
"You start to get your groove [in preseason games] and they take you out," he said. "With my game, I feel like it's stronger at the end of the game."
Stats bear him out: Martin averaged more than 100 yards per game in November and December of his Pro Bowl rookie season. He ran for 820 yards following halftime of games (including one overtime) that season compared to 586 in the first and second quarters.
So the hype on offense has gone to Vincent Jackson, Mike Evans and Austin Seferian-Jenkins – the tall pass-catchers threatening to stretch defenses more than the plodding Bucs usually do. But the front man still matters most. It's not just the "Dunkaneers"; it's Doug and the Dunkaneers.
"I'm right where I want to be," Martin said. "My mind is right. I'm right there."
The helmet monster, laying in the weeds.
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