TAMPA, Fla. -- If there was ever a time when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have needed two-time Pro Bowl running back Doug Martin to break one of his explosive runs, it’s now.
The defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots are in town for Thursday Night Football at Raymond James Stadium. There will be bright lights and a national audience.
It’s a chance to prove that the Bucs are actual playoff contenders and to redeem themselves from ghastly Thursday night performances in the past, including a 48-23 beatdown from the Atlanta Falcons last season.
It’s a chance to capitalize on a vulnerable 2-2 Patriots squad that is allowing 32 points per game on defense, second-worst in the NFL. New England's 456.8 yards allowed per game rank them sixth-worst since the NFL merger.
But for Martin, it means much more than wins and losses and stat lines.
It’s his first game back since he served a four-game suspension for performance-enhancing drugs and his first time playing since a 45-day stint in a drug-rehab program. The last time he was active for a regular-season game? Back on Dec. 18, when the Bucs lost to the Dallas Cowboys. The last time he put on pads in the preseason? Aug. 26.
“It’s been a while. It was a long break,” said Martin, who gathered with his family in California every Sunday to watch his team play on TV. He also kept in touch with teammates through group chats.
“I love these guys, and these guys love me," the 28-year-old said. "I know that [when] I wasn’t here, I know they were thinking of me, and they can’t wait for me to get back here. Now I’m back, and I’m going to play for these guys.”
Tight end Cameron Brate said, "He brings a lot of juice to the offense. His personality, when he’s in the huddle, everyone is all excited."
Left guard Kevin Pamphile called him a “breath of fresh air," adding, "We treat Doug as family. He is a brother. We’re happy to see him back, and we’re able to give him support on the field.”
Teammates will tell you that Martin, who has rushed for at least 1,400 yards in two of his five NFL seasons, has nothing to prove to them. Tampa Bay didn’t jump ship when it had the option. PEDs are considered conduct detrimental to the team and a violation of his contract. The Bucs could have used a high draft pick on a running back such as Dalvin Cook or signed a free agent such as Adrian Peterson. They chose to honor their commitment.
“It says a lot," Martin said. "I’m very grateful [with] everything that has gone on, and it feels good that they’re sticking by my side. I just want to go out there and play hard and do what I know I can do.”
Now it's his turn to honor the team's commitment to him, to back up what he said back in July: "I've got a lot to owe to this team."
There is an underlying feeling within the organization that, injuries aside, Martin’s best work comes out when there’s an incentive on the line, such as a new contract. Yes, there were shoulder injuries and hamstring injuries that plagued him in 2013, 2014 and 2016. But the Bucs (2-1) want to see him running hard every play, looking more like the rookie who rushed for 1,454 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2012.
"He might be one of those guys that needs a carrot," general manager Jason Licht told ESPN's Dan Graziano this summer. "And he's got a pretty big carrot in front of him right now because there's no guarantees that he's going to be here. And he knows that. We've talked to him, and he's good with it. He goes, 'I understand.'"
Offensive guard Evan Smith certainly believes. He has seen what Martin can do.
"When he gets to that secondary, you see him turn that gear on ... he always finishes hard," Smith said. "We feed off of that. We feed off the fact that Doug's running hard because it makes us wanna block hard for him."
Smith's favorite play of Martin's came against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 11 of the 2015 season. Martin rushed for a jaw-dropping 235 yards.
"We had this look we were talking about all week -- we saw it, we called it, we blocked it -- and Doug kind of rode the wave, and the next thing you know, Doug's gone for 80 yards. We wish we could have scored on that one, but he got caught."
That game was also a big one for quarterback Jameis Winston, who threw for five touchdowns to tie an NFL rookie record. When Martin runs well, it sets up Tampa Bay's play-action and Winston is at his best. It can also keep opposing quarterbacks such as Tom Brady off the field.
Truthfully, though, Winston is just happy to have Martin back. What he does Thursday night is secondary.
"Obviously, we love to have Doug Martin in the locker room, so that is the best part," Winston said. "What he does on the field ... I know he is going to do great on the field, but we’re just happy to have him back in this locker room, back with us so we can be there to support him and get this thing rolling.”