What an unusual group.
The most accomplished of the three does not play. The most heralded of the three had to wait for a turn he never knew was coming. The most nondescript of the three was supposed to carry the load, then was not supposed to carry the load, and now no one is sure what his role exactly is.
Enter the Buccaneers’ running back room and prepare to be confused.
There is the starter, Ronald Jones, a 2018 second-round draft pick. There is Leonard Fournette, once a hot commodity as the No. 4 overall pick of the Jaguars in 2017. There is LeSean McCoy, nicknamed Shady, a second-round pick of the Eagles in 2009, who has 11,102 career rushing yards but most likely won’t get a sniff of the field Sunday in Super Bowl LV.
Let’s cut to the chase: The Bucs are a passing team. Duh. They have Tom Brady. They averaged more passing yards (298.1) than every team in the NFL other than the Chiefs. They ran the ball less frequently (369 attempts) than all but three teams. To outscore the Chiefs, the Bucs most likely will have to outgun them through the air. That does not mean, however, their running game can fade into the background.
“We’re expecting a lot,’’ Jones said. “They’re a great defense. Our work is definitely cut out for us.’’
Jones, as the starter, ran for 978 yards, averaging 5.1 yards per attempt, but his production has dipped in the postseason. In the three playoff games, Fournette has 48 rushing attempts to Jones’ 35. Part of this was because a chest injury kept Jones off the field for much of the second half of the NFC Championship game at Green Bay. Fournette, after only 367 rushing yards during the season, has 211 yards, plus 14 receptions and three total touchdowns, in the three playoff games.
Has he found his groove?
“I’m not going to say that. I’ve always had my groove, I just didn’t play a lot,’’ Fournette said. “I would just say that it’s timing. God’s timing, you can’t rush it. Just for me to be in this position I’m in now, I’m just grateful. Coming from being cut and now playing in the Super Bowl with my new team and my new organization, it feels great.”
Jones, 23, said he benefited from having Fournette, 26, as an ally.
“He came in and helped with things I haven’t experienced,’’ Jones said. “Being a starter in this league, I was able to learn from him just how to prep through the week that and things like that.’’
McCoy, 32, won a Super Bowl last year as a backup with the Chiefs. The 11-year veteran has six 1,000-yard seasons on his résumé and thought he would be Jones’ backup in 2020. When Fournette was waived by Jacksonville in late August and one week later signed with Tampa Bay, McCoy became an afterthought. He had 10 rushing attempts all season.