There were days this past July when Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Doug Martin wished he had followed coach Lovie Smith’s advice and put football up on a shelf somewhere and gone kayaking or hiking.
Tuesdays and Thursdays, in particular, were such days.
Known as “leg days’’ at the Proactive Sports Performance training complex in Santa Ana, California, those were the days Martin spent trying to replenish the power in the legs that betrayed him the past two years.
“Yeah, leg days were the toughest,” Martin said of the physical grind he put himself through during his last few weeks of freedom before the start of training camp. “It was definitely one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done.’’
The payoff is evident. Martin, who ran for a season-high 106 yards last week against the Carolina Panthers, enters Sunday’s game against the Jacksonville Jaguars tied for eighth in the NFL in rushing with 282 yards.
The challenge of “leg day” was to make it through a non-stop, 90-minute, high-intensity workout that grew more taxing with each passing station. It literally left Martin gasping for air at the end.
The workout began ordinarily enough, with a steady jog on a treadmill, but quickly advanced to a rapid five-flight stair climb. Its coup de grace, though, was a far more unconventional test that seemed like it was culled from a strong-man competition.
Strapped into an upper-body harness tethered to a truck tire the likes of which you’d find on a bulldozer, Martin’s objective was to pull the tire and the 300 pounds of weight he added to it 25 yards for at least five minutes.
“You’d do a few of those and then it was back to the treadmill,’’ Martin said. “The fact it’s so fast paced really gets you into great shape, and I can tell that all that work is really paying off for me right now, especially those tire drills.’’
Martin has 10 runs of 10 yards or more, including a season-best 24-yard run last week. He’s also hard to bring down. His 164 yards after contact, more than half of his total rushing yards, rank seventh in the NFL.
“Doug is bringing to the games exactly what we see from him in practice every day,’’ Bucs offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter said. “He’s running hard and breaking tackles, and it’s great when you have a running back make yards on his own like that and doing it with power the way Doug is.’’
The power level is one Martin hasn’t reached since his 2012 rookie season, when he ran for 1,454 yards and went to the Pro Bowl. He had 1,005 yards after contract, and finished tied for sixth in the league with an average of 3.2-yards after contact.
Martin still has a ways to go to reach that level. He’s averaging 2.5 yards after contact per carry this year. But that’s an improvement over the 2.1 yards he averged over the past two seasons.
“The difference is, I’m healthy,’’ said Martin, who had a shoulder in jury in 2013 and ankle and knee injuries last season. “But right now I feel pretty good. I’m running with confidence again.’’
He’s running with purpose, too.
After watching Martin gain fewer than 500 yards each of the last two years, the Bucs opted not to pick up the fifth-year option on his contract, a choice that will make him an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season.
The move was primarily financial. Had the Bucs exercised the option, Martin would have been guaranteed, against injury, a $5.621 million salary for 2015. Martin will make $1.315 million this year.
But Martin insists the contract is not his greatest motivating factor. Rather, he said, it is his desire to prove the 2012 season, when his 1,926 total yards ranked third all-time for a rookie, wasn’t a fluke.
“I knew that if I did everything in my power to get back into shape and be at my best and just stayed healthy, everything else would fall into place for me,’’ Martin said. “That’s why I went back to California ... and did those workouts. I knew I’d be able to get into the best shape possible there. And there are times now after a run where I’ve broken some tackles and gained a few extra yards where I sort of think to myself, ‘Yeah, that’s those tire drills paying off.’’’
But the payoff includes more than just extra yards after contact. It also includes extra yards gained by avoiding tackles, both as a runner and a pass catcher.
Along with the power in his legs, Martin also lost much of his lateral quickness and agility the past two years. But it seems his late offseason workouts have allowed him to regain those skills, as well.
Martin ranks third in the league in missed tackles with 16, including 13 as a runner. The byproduct of those missed tackles is 341 total yards, which ranks eighth in the NFC and 20th in the NFL.
“He’s definitely back to his old form,’’ Jaguars coach Gus Bradley said. “He’s just a different kind of back, with a different kind of style, really. He has great strength, great speed and he puts a lot of pressure on a defense because it just seems that the more he goes, the stronger and stronger he gets.’’