Of two ex-Bucs impacting playoffs, only one is truly missed

New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees fumbles the ball as he is sacked by Seattle's Cliff Avril (behind Brees) and Michael Bennett in Saturday's playoff game. Bennett had six tackles in the Seahawks' win.

Elaine Thompson

When LeGarrette Blount burst past Indianapolis Colts defenders in the chilled New England night, shaking safety LaRon Landry a few steps later before rumbling 73 yards for his fourth touchdown Saturday at Gillette Stadium, the sight served as another reason to exhume the Greg Schiano/Mark Dominik era from its final resting place.

Saturday was stellar for two former Tampa Bay Buccaneers players, their footsteps long gone from the locker room at One Buc Place but far from forgotten.

Blount’s 166 yards rushing capped an awkward feeling for Bucs fans who haven’t lived the postseason since the 2007 campaign. But defensive end Michael Bennett’s six-tackle, half-sack effort in the Seattle Seahawks’ victory over the New Orleans Saints hours earlier at CenturyLink Field made this a one-two punch to the pewter-and-red gut that will sting for a while, at least until Lovie Smith returns to Raymond James Stadium with hopes for a better future.

The NFL is littered with regrettable decisions, and Tampa Bay has had its share of notable ones through the years. Steve Young started 19 games for the Bucs in 1985 and ’86 before winning three Super Bowls and appearing in seven Pro Bowls with the San Francisco 49ers. Trent Dilfer started 76 games for the Bucs from 1994-1999 before winning a Super Bowl with the Baltimore Ravens a year after his departure.

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The pain extends beyond the Bucs, of course. Year after year, franchises cast off talent and watch it excel elsewhere, renewal and regret part of the league’s cycle.

That’s why it’s best to look back on the Blount and Bennett decisions with care, by studying how they performed in the moment before discovering new life elsewhere. In that way, the verdict is mixed for Schiano/Dominik, which is revealing to how personnel decisions are a combination of strategy, preparation and luck.

Blount? It’s good he’s gone.

Bennett? Not so much.

Blount’s Tampa Bay career was unremarkable. Signed as an undrafted free agent in 2010, his best of three seasons with the Bucs came as a rookie, when he rushed for 1,007 yards with six touchdowns. But he never was as effective as he should have been as a short-yardage back, especially with his bulky 6-foot, 250-pound frame. By 2011, his production had dipped to 781 yards rushing and five touchdowns, an .8-yard-per-carry decrease from the year before.

The following April, Tampa Bay leadership made a savvy choice to trade back into the first round to claim Doug Martin at 31st overall. The jitterbug Boise State product had 1,454 yards rushing with 11 touchdowns in 2012, good enough for a Pro Bowl berth. He added 456 yards with one touchdown last season, before being placed on injured reserve in November with a torn labrum in his left shoulder.

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Consequently, New England bought Blount at a bargain price last April. Tampa Bay, with Martin’s high potential, was eager to move past Blount, as shown by the willingness to part ways with him for Jeff Demps and a seventh-round pick.

”We felt like we got good value,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick told reporters about Blount in May.

True, but that doesn’t make the Bucs wrong. Martin has more raw ability, and even though the Patriots found a find in Blount this season, there’s no guarantee he will remain an asset next year. He had one quality campaign in Tampa Bay, and for a variety of reasons that fall on him and the coaching staff, he became dispensable. That’s unhealthy for all involved.

The Bucs know what they have in Martin, and rookie Mike James showed promise as a reserve back by gaining 295 yards on 60 carries before being placed on injured reserve in November with a fractured left ankle. Credit Belichick for receiving the most from Blount, who had 772 yards rushing in the regular season, but the 27-year-old remains far from a sure thing.

Is it awkward that Blount enjoyed such a fast rise in New England? Yes. It is likely that he would have done the same with Tampa Bay, given the environment during his time here? No, and that’s the most telling answer of all.

Bennett, meanwhile, is a different case. He made admirable improvement since debuting with the Bucs in 2009 as an undrafted free agent. After earning one sack in each of his first two seasons, the Texas A&M product had four sacks in 2011 and a team-high nine in 2012.

Second time around

Curiously, the Bucs made little effort to keep him in free agency last spring, when Bennett signed a one-year, $4.8 million deal with Seattle. Parting ways with Bennett was grounded in the idea that Da’Quan Bowers, a second-round pick (51st overall) from Clemson in 2011, would slide into Bennett’s role to be the team’s primary pass rusher opposite Adrian Clayborn.

Those visions were short-lived. The Bucs never escaped training camp without questions about Bowers’ stamina, and he disappointed with seven tackles and one sack in 13 games.

”I actually think Da’Quan has gotten better and better,” Schiano said in October. ”I know that outside looking in (people are asking), ‘Why isn’t he playing more?’ I think he’s improving, not as fast as everyone would like.”

The misjudgment of Bowers, if not for the litany of other off-field issues, would be recalled as one of the former regime’s largest failures in 2013. Aside from defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, who earned his second consecutive Pro Bowl berth with a career-high nine sacks, the Bucs’ defensive line had a largely anonymous season: Clayborn had 64 tackles and six sacks, rookie defensive tackle Akeem Spence had 29 tackles and one sack, defensive end Daniel Te’o-Nesheim had 15 tackles and one sack.

Bennett, of course, continued his ascension in Seattle. He had 31 tackles and 8.5 sacks in the regular season, both numbers that are major improvements over the ineffective Bowers/Te’o-Nesheim revolving door.

How good would the Bucs’ defensive line have been with McCoy and Bennett? Unfortunately for Tampa Bay, hints of the possibility are seen with Bennett’s notable play in Seattle.

Such is life. Bennett and Blount are examples of how fortunes change in the NFL, for players, coaches and executives. As Bennett’s and Blount’s new teams earned the right to play for conference titles next Sunday, with each ex-Buc serving a starring role, the men who deemed them unfit for Tampa Bay continued to search for what comes next.

The Schiano/Dominik era was laid to rest 14 days ago, but fittingly, it’s given life in the postseason through two players who got away.

You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.