Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Jon Gruden and Buccaneers fans alike lamented the breakup of the "Thunder and Lightning" backfield after the 2001 season.
"Lightning" — in the form of former first-round pick Warrick Dunn — bolted for Atlanta to join the Falcons.
In six seasons with the Falcons, Dunn did nothing to diminish himself in the eyes of Buccaneers fans and the NFL alike.
Dunn became the franchise's third all-time leading rusher with 5,979 rushing yards in six seasons. This past season, he became just the 22nd player in NFL history to surpass the 10,000-yard career rushing mark. He helped anchor one of the top rushing attacks in the NFL from 2004-06, the acclaimed "DVD" backfield of Dunn, Michael Vick (now in jail) and T.J. Duckett (no longer in Atlanta).
When the Falcons ejected Dunn last week, the Bucs were the first team to come calling with a home and a contract offer. Dunn reportedly signed for $6 million over the next two years.
But are the Buccaneers getting anything close to the back they drafted in 1997? Look at Dunn's numbers his first five years in Tampa Bay:
He finished with 4,200 rushing yards, 259 receptions and 26 total touchdowns. His numbers actually improved in Atlanta because the Falcons used him in a similar fashion to Tampa Bay.
Dunn (5-foot-9, 187 pound) has always been more physical than his frame would suggest. Still, he has always excelled when paired with a more physical counterpoint in the backfield. In Tampa Bay, that was Mike Alstott (the "Thunder" in that backfield), whose brute force and blocking ability opened up holes and running lanes for Dunn.
The same was true in Atlanta, where the presence of the bruising Duckett — plus the mystifying talent of Vick — kept defenses on their heels and Dunn productive. It's probably no surprise that the most productive stretch of his career came at the height of the "DVD" backfield from 2004-06. Dunn rushed for 1,000 yards or more in each of those seasons and reached the 2004 NFC Championship game.
That's what was missing last season in Atlanta — along with a lot of other things. Without the physical presence of an Alstott or a Duckett, Dunn's numbers suffered. He only rushed for 720 yards, his worst total since 2003 (672 yards in 11 games). Fullback Ovie Mughelli was a more traditional fullback and less likely to run the ball or catch passes, like an Alstott or Duckett. Plus, adding in the departure of Vick, defenses could load up on Dunn.
So how successful can Dunn be in Tampa Bay? Alstott is now retired and will be replaced by B.J. Askew. While his career numbers aren't great, there is a perception that Askew can be an Alstott-type player, specifically in the passing game where he showed flashes of productivity before his foot injury in November.
The Buccaneers will use Dunn in a rotation with Earnest Graham (5-foot-9, 225 pounds) and Michael Bennett (5-foot-9, 207 pounds) until Carnell Williams returns from injury, a return some believe won't happen until November. Bennett and Dunn are similar backs that operate well in space and can outrun larger defenders. Graham, however, will likely see more playing time that either back at least to start the season, as his bowling ball size and physical running style will likely be more productive.
That doesn't mean Dunn won't be used, according to Scout.com Senior NFL Reporter Adam Caplan.
"At his age (33), Dunn's starting days appear to be over," Caplan said. "But the veteran back will be given a chance to win a top backup job. He should be able to handle 10-12 touches per game. He still has decent speed and the ability to make unblocked defenders miss."
Don't expect the same Dunn that left Tampa Bay in 2001. That's too much to expect from a 33-year old back. But if used properly — as part of a rotation system that relies on versatility and different running styles — Dunn can give the Bucs a jolt of production that can get them through to the return of Williams.
Matthew Postins covers the Buccaneers for BucsBlitz.com and the Charlotte Sun-Herald in Port Charlotte, Fla. An award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers Association, he appears frequently on Scot Brantley Show from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WHBO 1470-AM in Tampa-Clearwater.