We've seen Robert Griffin III start to turn around a wayward franchise. We've seen Andrew Luck spark a dormant team. And we've even seen Ryan Tannehill and Russell Wilson ignite forlorn fan bases.
But what if the most impactful rookie in the NFL isn't a quarterback?
What if it's Doug Martin?
"Hogwash" says everyone who's used to seeing RGIII and Luck on commercials but couldn't pick Martin out of a lineup. "Blasphemy" says everyone who debated whether Baylor and Stanford were college football powers last season but didn't watch a single Boise State game on television.
Well, those smart enough to draft the Bucs' running back on their fantasy teams realize turning around an NFL franchise doesn't necessarily require a highly-touted first-round quarterback. Sometimes it can be done with a late first-round running back. Specifically, one who just became the second player in NFL history to run for 250 yards and four touchdowns in one game. Martin's 51 fantasy points in standard scoring is third-best of all time, according to NFL.com.
The "Muscle Hamster" darted and dashed into the record books Sunday by peeling off highlight-reel-rush after highlight-reel-rush in his native Oakland, leading Tampa Bay to a .500 record and second place in the NFC South with a 42-32 victory over the Raiders. This is after a 10-game losing streak to end 2011, after losing key pass rusher Adrian Clayborn to injury, after losing star cornerback Aqib Talib in a trade, and (most important where Martin is concerned) after a season-ending toe injury to Pro Bowl guard Carl Nicks.
[Winners/losers: Andrew Luck gaining ground on Robert Griffin III]
And for a while there, it looked like the story of the Bucs' season would be head coach Greg Schiano's decision to disrupt the Giants' victory formation in Week 2.
Followers of Schiano and Rutgers football will find Martin quite familiar. Schiano was 3-24 in the Big East at Rutgers until Ray Rice came along and changed pretty much everything. The Scarlet Knights went 7-5 in Rice's freshman season and then 11-2 the year after. A team that didn't sniff bowl eligibility for years suddenly ripped off five straight postseason appearances. Rutgers is still respectable even with Rice and Schiano in the NFL, based on the tone they set as a duo in New Jersey. Now Schiano is getting the same kind of momentum going in Tampa. Rice, by the way, is 5-foot-8, 212 pounds; Martin is 5-foot-9, 215. You get the idea.
Skeptics will rightly wonder the same thing about Martin as they do about Griffin: Can he stay healthy? The NFL is no country for small men. But Bucs fans can take some solace in the presence of that relic of football days-gone-by: the fullback. Erik Lorig, a former defensive end at Stanford, is opening up big holes for Martin and allowing him to turn on the jets long before he gets to the secondary. Martin's runs Sunday weren't end-arounds or sweeps; he burst right through the heart of the Raiders' defense and all the way down the field. Martin is the first player since at least 1940 with three rushing touchdowns of at least 45 yards in a single game. A career day against the Raiders can certainly be a fluke, but runs like that in the NFL are usually not.
And though a rookie wall may be looming, Martin's last two games have been his best of the season; he's on pace for nearly 1,600 yards rushing. The last two rushing champions, Maurice Jones-Drew and Arian Foster, had 1,606 and 1,616, respectively.
Martin's place in the pantheon of 2012 rookies is to be determined in November and December, but the biggest surprise is the effect he's had on a team that couldn't even sell enough seats to avoid a season-opening blackout in September. The Bucs are not only relevant again, they're exciting to watch. Young players like Mark Barron and Mason Foster hit hard on defense, and Martin hits holes hard on offense. Schianoball isn't exactly progressive, yet teams with strong running games are usually more durable in playoff races (and bad weather).
Quarterback Josh Freeman and veteran receiver Vincent Jackson will be more potent simply because defenses will have to focus on Martin first. The rest of the season isn't easy, with two games against the Falcons and a trip to Denver, but the Bucs are a playoff threat at the halfway point in the season. Not many expected that even in the middle of October.
The hype and the cameras will keep gravitating to Luck and Griffin, and they're deserving. But here's betting neither Schiano, nor Bucs fans, nor fantasy owners are disappointed with the littlest rookie star. Martin will have plenty of eyes upon him for the rest of the season – specifically, the eyes of defenders.
A lot of them will be watching Martin from behind.
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