Running on empty: Buccaneers need more from cadre of RBs

Despite having (from left) Charles Sims, Bobby Rainey, Doug Martin and Mike James as options, but Bucs rank 28th in the NFL in rushing.

USA TODAY Sports

TAMPA, Fla. — Don’t call him Josh "Maserati" McCown. Don’t expect him to own the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ best pair of wheels each Sunday.

In fact, two things can’t happen if the Bucs hope to rise from near the bottom of the NFL in rushing offense.

1.) Punter Michael Koenen serves as a primary lead blocker.

2.) McCown becomes their leading rusher often.

The latter occurred in the Bucs’ Week 10 loss to the Atlanta Falcons, when the veteran quarterback rumbled, bumbled and stumbled for 39 yards on five carries. Charles Sims produced 23 yards on eight carries in his NFL debut. Mike James followed with 16 yards on four carries, and Bobby Rainey had 14 on six.

This can’t happen. The Bucs need their running backs to be more flash than fade. Sims’ addition to the lineup Sunday after he missed the season’s first half with a right ankle injury was thought to provide sizzle. But he was more fizzle, especially with a fumble in the third quarter that killed a drive at the Falcons’ 35-yard line.

"I don’t ever anticipate being the lead rusher," McCown said. "Hopefully, that won’t happen again. But if that’s what it takes for us to win, then so be it."

A little more

So many things are wrong with this offense that picking on the running game is like pointing out a single mole on a freckly face. Still, the backfield was thought to have strong depth before the season, after Sims was taken in the third round to add versatility to a stable that included a Pro Bowl player (Martin), a driven underdog (Rainey) and a serviceable short-yardage option (James).

Yet Martin’s career has plateaued, Rainey has fared well at times but is fumble prone, and James has had no more than six carries in a single game this season. It’s too early to make a read on Sims, but the Bucs need more than minor contributions from him.

"You have to take time to develop that too," Bucs quarterbacks coach Marcus Arroyo said of Sims’ play. "You’re not just going to throw out 15 of 25 plays for a guy and expect him to go on his first opener and go, ‘Hey go, we’re going to put it on your back.’ I think that does an injustice. He had a nice little role and did some nice things."

Problem is, Tampa Bay needs more than "nice" from a rushing attack that ranks 28th in the NFL by averaging 90 yards per game. The Bucs have received glimpses, most notably Rainey’s 144 yards against the St. Louis Rams in Week 2 and his 87 against the Cleveland Browns in Week 9.

However, high-impact games from Bucs running backs have been few and far between.

Martin has had no more than 45 yards in a single game, achieved against both the New Orleans Saints in Week 5 and the Baltimore Ravens in Week 6. James has had no more than the 16 yards he earned against the Falcons on Sunday.

They need standout efforts, not nice ones.

Crunch time

That’s part of the reason why the narrative has changed about the Bucs’ running-back situation. Back on Sept. 3, Lovie Smith dubbed Martin as the Bucs’ bell cow, and the coach said the Boise State product had to have a great year for them to be successful.

So much has changed. Martin was thought to be the new coaching staff’s workhorse at his position. Early visions had to include Logan Mankins, Anthony Collins, Evan Dietrich-Smith and the rest cracking open holes for Martin to help him recapture the rookie magic that led to 1,454 rushing yards.

But Martin has underwhelmed, and it’s obvious that Rainey is Tampa Bay’s best option to do anything significant behind a flawed offensive line. Wednesday, Arroyo was right in saying that the Bucs’ so-called bell cow in the backfield has morphed into a three-headed animal that includes Sims, Rainey and Martin when all are healthy. James should be considered in that rotation as well.

Smith echoed the sentiment hours later when he said, "Doug isn’t playing right now (because of an ankle injury). So I don’t even think you should talk about a player that’s not playing being your bell cow right now."

Bell cow or no bell cow, it doesn’t matter.

The question that endures is this: Are any of the options worth becoming excited about?

"You have guys in third-and-1 situations who can carry the flag," Arroyo said. "You have a guy who can carry it in certain situations. That’s a great thing to have. I think a lot of teams wish they had that flexibility."

Cheerleader Gallery

That’s a PC way to spin his running-back landscape. But the truth is, the Bucs’ flexibility in the area doesn’t bend far. Picture a potbellied, middle-aged couch potato trying to stretch before jogging around the block for the first time in 10 years.

Tampa Bay’s rushers have a long way to go.

This isn’t 3-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust stuff. Too often, outside of Rainey’s strong days, the Bucs’ rushing attack has resembled 3 yards and find a seat on the turf.

"That is bad when your quarterback is the leading rusher," Rainey said. "Offensively, as far as running the ball, we’ve just got to do a better job. We can’t have our quarterback have the most yards, especially (with him) taking hits anyway. We need him to stay in the pocket and deliver and hand the ball off."

We’re not talking about Barry Switzer’s Wishbone here. The Bucs should never want Josh "Goodyear" McCown to make many appearances, if any at all.

Their three-headed backfield animal, no longer a lone bell cow, must do more.

Then Koenen can become comfortable far out of view.

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