He is like a 225-pound ruby on a sinking galleon in Tampa Bay, but running back James Wilder refuses to look to the heavens and say, "Why me?"
In a way, Wilder's is a greatness to be pitied. Did anybody happen to notice that while the Buccaneers sank to 6-10 in 1984, Wilder rushed for 1,544 yards and caught 85 passes to accomplish the unprecedented? He became the first player to finish in the top three in a National Football League season in both rushing and receiving. He placed third in both.
Wilder's 407 carries last season set a league record. So quietly, Wilder said, "Pass receiver. Running back. I'd say I'm a full house."
Maybe if you've got scuba gear in the garage you might want to take a closer look at the Buccaneers, now 0-5. You'll see that Wilder leads the league in rushing (526 yards) and rates third in the league in receptions (31).
He is on a pace that would net him 1,680 yards rushing and 99 catches this season. He's turned a one-back offense into a one-man offense.
"There's a category (of running backs) that people pick, the top five, is it? I'm in that category," Wilder said, sitting in the Buccaneers' film room this week. "I think Walter Payton is the best. There ain't no doubt about that. And then there's a (lower) category and I'm walking in the door of that one. I say to myself, 'If my statistics put me in that category then I must be in it.' "
Wilder, now in his fifth season, added, "When I produce those numbers, that should put me away from names that are unknown."
Yeah, but shouldn't those same numbers also put Wilder in a rocking chair? We're talking about moving the ball more than 30 times per game. Wilder's been tackled more than 630 times since the start of last season, enough to make a running back jump from 27 years old to ancient real quick. Remember how fast the aging process raced for pounders of the past, Larry Brown of the Redskins and John Brockington of the Packers?
"Our offense is balanced, though. We've got a passing attack, too," Wilder contends.
But aren't the passes thrown to Wilder, too? He laughed and said, "I guess that's true."
Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor once said of Wilder, "He leaves an impression on everybody, especially (with) his cleats."
The Chicago Bears limited Wilder to 29 yards on 18 carries in a 27-19 victory in Tampa Sunday and Wilder thereby failed to equal a league record of seven consecutive games with 100 yards rushing or more, a mark held by Earl Campbell and O.J. Simpson. The Bears instructed linebacker Mike Singletary to shadow Wilder. Stick to him, Singletary was told, and when he touches the ball, stick it to him.
This strategy allowed Tampa Bay quarterback Steve DeBerg the field space to pass for 346 yards, but without their 225-pound ruby shining pretty, the Buccaneers are badly beatable.
Dan Hampton, Bears' all-pro defensive tackle, says of Wilder, "He has incredible stamina. He has great hands, great moves, a great package. People rave about (the Rams') Eric Dickerson, but I'd rather have Wilder. He will be one of the great running backs of the 1980s.
"Certain running backs condition themselves for that type of punishment. Walter Payton has done it for 10 years. If Wilder can do it for seven or eight, he'll be in the Hall of Fame."
The Bears defensive coordinator, Buddy Ryan, and Redskins General Manager Bobby Beathard have the same analysis of Wilder: "Most complete running back in the game, next to Walter Payton."
If that wasn't compliment enough, how about this one from Tampa's veteran guard, Steve Courson: "Without question, James is the best running back I've blocked for." These are powerful words when you consider that Courson blocked for Franco Harris in six seasons in Pittsburgh.
Courson even said that not only might Wilder rush for 2,000 yards this season, but "I expect him to." Courson also said it is possible for Wilder to rush for 2,000 yards and catch 100 passes in the same season.
"If anyone is capable of doing that," Courson said, "James is."
Only since the late 1970s have offenses been structured in a way that allows running backs to produce Herculean numbers in both rushing and receiving. None, however, approaches Wilder's 1984 bonanza. Former Redskin Joe Washington ran for 884 yards and caught a league-best 82 catches for Baltimore in 1979. The Falcons' William Andrews ran for 1,567 yards and caught 59 passes in 1983.
The running back's season most closely resembling Wilder's 1984 might be Lydell Mitchell's 1977. That's when the former Baltimore star led the league with 71 receptions and rushed for 1,159 yards, fifth-best in the league. Only Wilder, however, has rated among the NFL's top three players in rushing and receiving in the same season.
There was a slight scar on last season for Wilder, though. In the final game of the season, John McKay (then coach, now team president) ordered his defense to allow the New York Jets to score a late touchdown in a game the Buccaneers would win, 41-21, so Wilder could get another chance to gain the 23 yards he needed to break Dickerson's single-season record of 2,244 total yards (rushing and receiving).
The decision cost the Buccaneers a $10,000 fine and McKay later reasoned, "I leave as I came, a controversial man." Wilder gained only seven more yards and fell 16 yards short of Dickerson's figure. He longs to break that mark this season.
"Our offense had done some great things last year. We saw the opportunity for the record and we wanted it in that game," Wilder said. "We wanted to do anything possible to get something out of last season. I would have done the same thing (McKay) did against the Jets if I was in his position."
Wilder said defenders have been punishing him with late hits with greater frequency recently. He said he knows that these are a product of his growing reputation. "I try to prepare myself for the late hits," Wilder said. "When I'm down (on the ground), I tense up my body."
"Late hits are the price James pays for his greatness," said Courson.
Tampa Bay running backs have 124 carries, so far. Ron Springs has four. Wilder has 120. About the only noticeable effect of the accumulation of tackles is that Wilder has fumbled three times. Coach Leeman Bennett doesn't seem to mind.
"James Wilder is going to handle the ball many, many times this year," Bennett said, "and I know he is going to suffer some fumbles. I can live with that."