The Falcons, desperately needing to fill seats in a half-empty Georgia Dome and wanting a big-play infusion on offense next year with Michael Vick taking over for Chris Chandler at quarterback, swiped Dunn away from new division-rival Tampa Bay on Thursday signing him to a six-year deal averaging a whopping $4.6 million per season, including a signing bonus of at least $6 million.
Atlanta really overpaid for Dunn's services, especially since he is coming off a year in which he rushed for a career-low 447 yards and three touchdowns, and suffered through a pulled hamstring and a nagging turf toe injury - an injury that some players have recovered from, but others, such as Larry Czonka and Deion Sanders, never fully recovered from.
The general consensus around the league says that Dunn is a complimentary back, not a feature back, which is an opinion I have held since the Pre-Draft issue of Buccaneer Magazine in 1997 when I urged the Bucs to draft Corey Dillon out of Washington instead of Dunn, whom they highly regarded. My point was that Tampa Bay wouldn't come close to using him in the wide open offense that Florida State operated in, in which a great deal of his collegiate carries came on draws out of the shotgun formation.
Three different Bucs offensive coordinators never truly figured out how to maximize his talents and he typically wound up splitting carries with Mike Alstott from his rookie year until 2001 when he earned the right to be the team's feature back after a strong finish to the 2000 season in which he averaged 112 yards rushing over the last five games.
But Dunn's turf toe injury occurred in the second game of the 2001 season and robbed him of his effectiveness as a rusher. Dunn did wind up with a career-high 68 catches for 557 yards and three touchdowns, but struggled as the featured back when he returned to the lineup. Close to one-third of Dunn's 158 carries in 2001 went for a loss or no gain, usually due to Dunn's indecisiveness or freelancing away from the designed hole in the offensive line.
Dunn leaves Tampa Bay as the Bucs' No. 2 all-time rusher with 4,200 yards and 17 rushing scores. He made the Pro Bowl twice, first as a rookie in 1997 when he rushed for 978 yards and four touchdowns, and second after his best career year in 2000 when he galloped to a career-high 1,133 yards and eight touchdowns. But Dunn's visit to the 2000 Pro Bowl came as an injury replacement. He also produced a 1,000-yard season in 1998 when he rushed for 1,026 yards and two touchdowns.
But Dunn's 2001 season seemed to mirror his 1999 campaign when he rushed for only 616 yards and didn't score a rushing touchdown all season. He was more of a receiver that year too, catching 64 passes for 589 yards and two scores. Dunn was hampered by leg injuries in '99, as he was last season, and has never been able to start a full 16 games during one season in the NFL.
The 5-foot-8, 180-pound Dunn has always had to deal with the knock about being too small to be an every down back. The Falcons are giving him that chance, the Bucs -- very wisely -- are not. He'll get around 20 carries per game and 25 touches to prove the Falcons right and Dunn's critics wrong.
After seeing glimpses of what Dunn can do as a feature back and a role player, new Bucs coach Jon Gruden fantasized about what he could do with Dunn's abilities as a rusher and receiver. Truth be told, Gruden could probably succeed where Mike Shula, Les Steckel and Clyde Christensen failed. But if Dunn hadn't been able to shake the injury bug and his penchant for dancing behind the offensive line, the salary cap-strapped Bucs would have made a huge mistake in tying up millions of dollars in a player who is essentially a third down back.
Perhaps Dunn will excel in Atlanta and run Jamal Anderson out of town. Or maybe after a year, a bigger back like Maurice Smith, who is already in Atlanta's stable, will continue to push for some of Dunn's carries as Mike Alstott did in Tampa Bay. Then the Falcons would have paid over $26 million to a complimentary back.
Perhaps playing on the quicker artificial surface at the Georgia Dome eight times per year will propel Dunn to more 100-yard games. It has been 19-straight games, including two playoff games in Philadelphia and contests he has missed due to injury, since Dunn has produced a 100-yard rushing game. Or perhaps playing on turf nine times per year, including an annual visit to division rival New Orleans, will wear on the 27-year old Dunn's turf toe, ankles and knees.
Tampa Bay needs a bigger back with the combination of speed and tackle-breaking ability. That player wasn't Dunn, who went down too easily, and isn't Alstott, who lacks explosive speed, but it may be a free agent like Arizona's Michael Pittman, who could be a Priest Holmes-type player in Tampa, or a draft pick like BYU's Luke Staley, Toledo's Chester Taylor, Iowa's Ledell Betts or Northwestern's Damien Anderson. The cupboard is not bare in Tampa Bay either as Aaron Stecker showed some big-play ability last season in limited appearances.
Dunn was a high character individual who should be praised for his timeless community service work in Tampa and his native Baton Rouge. He was a popular player due to his Florida State roots and his smallish size, which made him the underdog. It's hard not to cheer for an underdog.
He helped the underdog Bucs become annual playoff contenders. Now he'll try to do the same in Atlanta for the lowly Falcons.
Right now it's easy to say that Dunn's departure to Atlanta is a huge loss for Tampa Bay. But let's wait and see what free agency and the NFL Draft holds in store for the Buccaneers. In the end, losing Dunn may only be a small loss, or perhaps not a real loss at all.
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