[WARNING: This article features some assertions founded on cod psychology and what I like to term 'reasonable speculation' – like an educated guess; it may be reasonable, but without a copy of the Bucs' offensive playbook, it is still ultimately speculation. Still, isn't every article written about football, without being privy to both a team's playbook and every interaction between the people concerned, ultimately just speculation? Anyway, obviously I believe that the assertions I will be making are correct, or as close as anyone can get to the truth without planting bugs all over One Buc Place – and I'm not Mickey Loomis]
It can't be easy, being LeGarrette Blount. I'm sure you all already know the story: at one time projected to be a high pick in the NFL Draft, he saw his draft stock plummet after 'that' incident, to the point where he went undrafted in 2010. Picked up by Tennessee, he made it through camp with the Titans before being released when the roster was cut down to 53, before being claimed by the Bucs. After spending a few games undressed, as it were, while he learnt the offense, Blount had an explosive rookie season, rushing for over 1000 yards in just seven starts, averaging 5 yards a carry and ripping off the kind of highlight-reel runs that will stay part of the random medley of big plays that NFL Network use to advertise some show or other. Entering 2011 as one of the Bucs' rising stars (whenever I need to be reminded how hindsight can make a fool of us all, I pull out the programme from that season's International Series game against the Bears and flip to the multi-page article anointing Josh Freeman, Mike Williams & Blount as the unquestionable heirs to the "Triplets" of Aikman, Irvin and Smith), it seemed LeGarrette Blount was munching down on a big ol' slice of validation cake, another sporting Cinderella story come true...
...until the Bucs collapsed in the most spectacular implosion since the Sears Merchandising Center (and no, I can never turn down an opportunity for a good implosion video on Youtube). It appeared clear that most, if not all, of the players had literally quit on the season - and yet, it seems that Blount was held up in the eyes of many as one of the main reasons the Bucs' offense was underwhelming (only exacerbated by being unduly thrown under the bus by a desperate Raheem Morris), leading to a whole swathe of the Buccaneer faithful demanding that the front office do whatever it would have taken to guarantee that Trent Richardson would be wearing pewter and red in 2012. When new head coach Greg Schiano stated he wanted a 'bell-cow' running back, many took it as read that Blount would not be that particular heifer, while admitting to the media that he did not want the Bucs to take a running back at no.5served only to further embolden those demanding his head on a platter - ok, it was poor media technique on Blount's part, but are you really blaming a turkey for not voting for Christmas (and/or Thanksgiving) with a smile on its beak? If Schiano's comments weren't enough of a sign that Blount's long-term future with the team was far, far from assured, it was telling that LeGarrette, an 'exclusive rights free agent' that offseason, received only an ERFA tender, implying that the incoming coaching staff had not seen enough of Blount to feel he figured as part of the long-term solution.
As we now know, the Bucs did end up taking a first round running back when they traded back in for Doug "No, You Will Never Escape The Nickname 'Muscle Hamster'" Martin - giving the Bucs potential for a dynamic rushing game that could have torn defenses apart. Instead, Greg Schiano stuck true to his word, and in defiance of a majority of NFL teams eschewed the 'committee' approach in favour of Martin as his bell-cow. No-one can realistically argue that Martin isn't the more talented back, nor that he shouldn't have received the lion's share of carries in 2012. Still, there absolutely could have been a valuable role for Blount in the offense, abusing worn-out defenses tired out from chasing Martin to help control the clock and dictate the pace of the game. And yet, calling Blount an afterthought in the Buccaneer offense would be generous, especially after that goal-line series in the first game against the Saints. After that game, Blount only received sixteen more touches all season. In the short term, a massive reduction in Blount's carries could easily be justified - the very next game saw Martin truly explode in a Thursday night showcase against the Vikings, followed up by a performance for the ages in Oakland before breaking Walter Payton's record for most yards from scrimmage in a three-game span when San Diego came to town. Every good coach knows to ride the hot hand, and it was clear that Martin's appendage was practically combusting; to give Blount, or any other running back, carries over Martin during that mini-streak would have been ludicrous, unless (and only unless) it would have been a measure to preserve Martin's health.
Yet, later in the season when Martin appeared to come back down to the realm of the human, there were absolutely times when Blount should have had his number called - in particular (and somewhat ironically), the away leg of the series against New Orleans, when Martin averaged only a paltry 1.78 yards a carry (though as we will go on to see, this is without doubt not all Martin's fault), was the perfect time for Schiano to unleash Blount. Yet #27 remained on the sideline until the game was far beyond salvation; as clear sign as any that Mike Sullivan, Schiano or a combination of both did not have faith in Blount's abilities. This was not a case of passing over Blount because of how well Martin was doing, clearly; this was Blount in Schiano's dog house. Come the end of the season, and there were many questioning whether Blount, due to be a restricted free agent, would be brought back at all, and after an odd rumour that the Bucs were considering placing a first-round tender on him, he ended up being offered a 1-year contract worth less than a second-round tender - and more importantly, a contract at a price that makes him a viable tradeable commodity. With reports abound that the team are actively trying to trade him just two seasons after he appeared to be the running back of the future for the Bucs, it really can't be easy being LeGarrette Blount.
So how did Blount go from the SportsCenter superstar of the 40+ yard-runs, with hurdles and trucking abound, to a permanent seat in the head honcho's pooch-pad? There's a few possible answers. One theory floated by the anti-Blount camp, motivated but some irrational and entirely unjustified grudge born of uneducated delusion, is that it was directly tied to the scurrilous and so-far unsubstantiated rumours that Blount was so bereft of study skills, or even the most basic level of organisation, that the team had to effectively hire a nanny to wake Blount up and make sure he got to OBP on time. Leaving aside my own personal opinion on such stories offered without a scrap of supporting evidence (*cough*bullsh-t*cough*), such tall tales seem hard to reconcile with the anecdote Mark Dominik relayed to the press about LeGarrette's pre-draft visit to the team facility, where he was the only one of the visiting players to wear a suit, and made sure to visit the team's cafeteria kitchens to personally thank the chefs. Now, if you wanted to take a cynical view on such behaviour - and you may be right to - you might argue that such actions were not genuine but rather a ploy to make him seem more humble than he actually is. Perhaps, perhaps not; but it left a mark on Dominik, and it at least showed Blount had the forethought to ingratiate himself with the Buccaneer organisation; would someone who either was genuinely humble on his pre-draft visit, or had the presence of mind to put on the airs of humility in order to make an impression, be so badly organised or immature that he needed a permanent carer at the Glazers' expense? Oh, I'm sure he was late on occasion - the folly of youth and the lures of fame make for an unhealthy combination - but do you really think he would have been the lone player guilty of such a crime? Let he (or she) without a single 'late' mark on the attendance sheets of the schools or colleges cast the first angrily-typed comment.
So, if we discard this theory (as I believe we rightly should), what else could explain the absence of Blount in the Tampa Bay gameplan, even when Martin was going through less-impressive performances than those we had come to expect from #22? Some will point to the career-low 3.7 yards Blount picked up per carry, or the lone reception he caught going for a mere two yards. Others will point specifically to the infamous goal-to-go downs against the Saints as to why Blount did not deserve to have a greater role on the offense. Others yet will trump up the old claims about his alleged uselessness in pass-protection likewise warrants more time spent on the bench than the field.
Reading this, you may be nodding your head with those statements, agreeing that such stats and statements should translate to Blount being but a minor part of the offense - if part of the team at all. You may even believe those baseless rumours I mentioned earlier. Alternatively, you may hold a different opinion on Blount - an opinion that remembers the excitement he brought every time he touched the ball, or the games when he single handedly became the motor of the offense and drove the team to success (such as the home game against the Panthers in 2010, or the come-from-behind victory against the 2011 Vikings in Week Two); an opinion that recognises that Blount does not exist in a vacuum, but rather that there are a multitude of factors that influence whether a player is bound for success or doomed to failure. This article is written from the second opinion. I will not argue that Blount should receive more carries than Martin - he shouldn't - or that he is a complete player (as he stands now) - he isn't. I will argue that Blount is an absolute weapon that could (and should) be deployed to devastating effect - if used correctly. I will likewise argue that many of the faults seen in his game are either at least partly attributable to the play of others (and no, this is not 'making excuses' - this is how football works), or are complete myths that have taken hold despite not having much, any, grounding in reality.
Still, none of these are the main argument of this article. No, I will argue that the largest factor in Blount ending up in Schiano's bad books is Coach Schiano himself - and that Blount is what I like to term a Victim of Schiano. You see, in an 'Inception'-style mindfreak, this article at its' heart is not about LeGarrette Blount at all. This is an article about Schiano, about the ways coaching can affect players and ultimately about the theory and essence of coaching itself - all seen through the prism of Blount. This article is titled "Learning a Lesson from LeGarrette", not because of what we can learn from Blount himself, but rather how exploring the way Blount has been handled can reveal plenty about Schiano, and what may lie in store for the Buccaneers under his helm.
In part two of this article, I'll be offering a frank assessment of what Blount actually does on the field - and explain just how wrong the narrative about Blount truly is. Whether it's his ability to diagnose the play in front of him, or how he's fared in the passing game, the reality of LeGarrette's play is a world away from the current public perception of his skills - and through looking at gamefilm and gamefilm alone, I'll be explaining in part two why he's a better back than you likely think he is.