When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers lost Doug Martin to a shoulder injury against the Atlanta Falcons in Week 7, it seemed like the already hapless Buccaneers had lost the one promising young player they had on offense.
And in a winless season spent at the bottom of the standings, young, promising players are the hope fans can cling to for a better future.
But on Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks, Mike James was able to inspire hope in the fanbase of the Buccaneers that he, too, could be a future star at running back to supplement the proven talent of the injured Martin.
James rushed for 158 yards on 28 carries Sunday, while veteran backup Brian Leonard only toted the football five times for 20 yards. The Buccaneers trusted in their sixth-round rookie runner from Miami, and he repaid them with a fantastic performance.
The first-year runner showed great explosion as he found and ran through holes in the offensive line, averaging 5.6 yards per carry against a talented Seattle defense.
He didn't show any shake-and-bake moves in the open field, but instead opted for a hard-nosed running style with a low center of gravity and forceful hits to knock back defenders and fall forward for extra yards.
One of the best qualities of Martin, the incumbent starter in Tampa, is his ability to fight and claw for every yard on even the most broken of plays. James possess that same talent and put it on display against the Seahawks.
So what's next for the Buccaneers in an 0-8 season with injuries all over the roster?
Developing players like James and his quarterback Mike Glennon should be the highest priority, and Sunday's performance sets up plenty of options for both rookies to succeed.
James will now be a respected runner, and there will be game plans designed to stop him. Much like Zac Stacy of the St. Louis Rams, who had a breakout game against the Seahawks and followed it up with a great performance against the Tennessee Titans in Week 9, teams will have to respect the ability of the youngster from Miami.
And as James becomes more of a focus of the offense, the passing game will benefit. Just consider the way the defense collapsed on him on this jump pass for a touchdown on Sunday.
This is not a practical way to run an offense, but it demonstrates a point that will benefit the Buccaneers for the rest of the season. The running game is respectable again, and simply stacking the box isn't enough to slow down Mike James.
If teams overcompensate against James, that will allow Glennon and his receivers more room to work and will open up big plays in the play-action game. This is the sort of offensive balance that the Buccaneers need, even in a lost season with no wins.
So how does this performance set up James for the future? It's clear that he's not going to overtake 2012's breakout star Doug Martin as the starter, but in today's NFL, multiple running backs are a necessity, not a luxury.
A perfect example of this was seen from the Seattle offense on Sunday, as they were forced to rotate in Robert Turbin for the injured Marshawn Lynch, and he was moderately effective (eight carries for 37 yards) while spelling the talented starter.
Martin has proven that he's not immune to injury, and he needs a reliable running mate. James' breakout performance against the Seahawks gives Tampa Bay hope that it may have found a viable option to rotate in at tailback to maintain a threat of running the ball and keep defenses guessing with a balanced offense.
Both James and Martin are on inexpensive rookie contracts, and they both have plenty of good years ahead of them considering they were both drafted within the past 19 months. The Buccaneers have a duo of talented tailbacks who they can rely upon in 2014 and beyond.
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