Position review: Are RBs the problem for Bucs’ lack of ground attack?

From left: Tampa Bay running backs Doug Martin, Bobby Rainey and Charles Sims. The Bucs ranked 29th in the NFL with an average of 85.9 rushing yards per game in 2014.

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TAMPA, Fla. — Somewhere along the way, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ running game blew a tire. The causes are many, each like nails that punctured the possibility for the backfield to gain momentum.

Poor quarterback play.

Lack of complexity from an inexperienced play caller.

An awful offensive line.

It’s easy to pin the Bucs’ running problems on any of those issues, and all the factors deserve some blame. No terrible rushing attack achieves infamy alone, and that’s exactly what the Bucs were for most of 2014: Cringe-worthy, forgettable, perplexing with Doug Martin’s continued decline.

But simply, the running game must gain life in 2015. Fast. Tampa Bay ranked 29th in the NFL with an average of 85.9 rushing yards per game. Sunday after Sunday, the Bucs’ offense sputtered without the wheels to carry others to where they wanted to go.

Forget three yards and a cloud of dust. Too often, the Bucs’ running game was two steps and a hard landing spot.

"You talk about ‘What’s the look of our offense?’" Bucs coach Lovie Smith said. "I’ve gotten that quite a bit on ‘What you would like to do.’ When we run it, we want to be able to run successfully and stay out of third-and-long situations. … It always starts up front, we know we need to get that part straight, and once we can do that, we have a chance to see more of who Doug Martin really is. We got a chance to see more of who Charles Sims is and Bobby Rainey, so that’s how we would like to run."

Tampa Bay Buccaneers position review

Many questions remain with the Bucs’ running game. It’s hard to tell where Martin’s career is heading, but the arrow is pointing down, down, down. Sims arrived with promise, but it’s difficult to know what his ceiling may be. Rainey was effective for part of the season, but the coaching staff treated him like a cough to be avoided late in the year. Mike James served in a diminished role under Smith, signaling that the Miami product’s value is less than it was during his rookie year under Greg Schiano.

These days, it’s possible to predict that Sims is the future at the position, though it’s hard to know what kind of tomorrow that will be. The Bucs have plenty of names available at running back, but there’s more sizzle than sirloin in that kitchen.

This much is known: More substance is needed.

Who’s up for the task?

Here’s a closer look at the Bucs’ running back situation …

STARTER

Doug Martin — Where is his career going? It’s a legitimate question after another season of struggle. Martin led the Bucs with 494 yards rushing on 134 carries, and simply, that’s not good enough for a supposed No. 1 option. Eyes were on him after he played in just six games in 2013, and his 2014 campaign can’t be viewed in any other way than a huge disappointment. He averaged 3.7 yards per carry, and he found the end zone just twice. His standout rookie season of 1,454 yards rushing in 2012 seems long, long ago.

BACKUPS

Beware of reading too much into recent offensive hires by Bucs

Charles Sims — He was a curious selection in the third round, given the Bucs’ assumed depth at running back before the draft. The new regime built him up as an athletic threat out of the backfield, but ankle surgery kept him on the injured reserve/designated for return list before he made his debut against the Atlanta Falcons in Week 10. Sims had a so-so season for a rookie, finishing with 185 yards rushing and 190 yards receiving in eight games. Frankly, he wasn’t anything special. He needs to show more growth this year after looking slower than expected.

Bobby Rainey — He was the Bucs’ most effective rushing threat most of the season, his best effort coming with 144 yards on the ground in a Week 2 loss to the St. Louis Rams. With Martin’s slump and Sims’ injury, Rainey became the Bucs’ workhorse in the backfield until he strangely received just two carries in Tampa Bay’s final five games. He closed as the Bucs’ second-best rusher with 406 yards and one touchdown on 94 carries. It’s uncertain what kind of backfield role he’ll play next season, given how the staff used him sparingly late in the most recent campaign.

Mike James — He wasn’t used often, primarily as a change-of-pace option in short-yardage situations. He finished with 19 carries for 37 yards in 11 games, a large drop from his 295 yards in eight games as a rookie in 2013. If the Bucs add new faces to the running back corps in the offseason, James could find himself as the odd man out. He looks dispensable.

POSSIBLE FREE-AGENT TARGETS

Betting on free-agent running backs is difficult. Running backs come with a short lifespan, and it’s much safer to draft and develop young talent than to take a chance on a player that comes with wear. Likely, the current regime wants Sims to grow into the Bucs’ top running back, though Martin could be given a chance to resurrect his career next season if he’s not dealt in the coming months. But consider the possibility that the Bucs may snag someone for a cheap price to serve the change-of-pace role. Perhaps someone like Joe McKnight.

BEST DRAFT OPTIONS

As it stands, the Bucs have plenty of bodies at running back, but how pleased are they with them? Sims is a Smith and Jason Licht pick, so he’ll be given every chance to succeed. But if Martin returns, will he continue to be the No. 1 option? If so, for how long? If the Bucs draft a running back at all, the move probably won’t happen until the third round or later. Names like David Cobb, Jeremy Langford, David Johnson, Javorius Allen and Matt Jones could pop up then.

FINAL THOUGHT

Evaluating running backs comes with a caveat. It’s always possible to say, "Well, they declined because the offensive line was terrible." That’s true in Tampa Bay’s case, but it’s also imperative that the Bucs receive more from their backfield next season no matter how the production happens. The running game should have a different feel with new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter. Former quarterbacks coach/acting offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo was too quick to abandon the run last season. Tampa Bay must show a greater commitment to the running game or the offense will continue to skid.

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