TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Doug Martin plowed into the end zone, kissed the ground in celebration and jogged back to the sideline sporting a big smile.
The running back’s return from a hamstring injury that sidelined him nearly two months meant a lot more to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers than a 16-carry, 33-yard rushing performance against the Chicago Bears suggested.
“Just happy to be back,” Martin said after the Bucs (4-5) stopped a two-game losing streak Sunday with their first home victory in nearly a year. The fifth-year pro missed six games and most of a seventh.
“It was frustrating,” the two-time Pro Bowler added. “But I was back and ready to go.”
With rookie Peyton Barber gaining 38 yards on 12 attempts, Martin wasn’t Tampa Bay’s leading rusher.
But just getting him back on the field gave the Bucs an emotional lift and bolstered optimism that the team can turn its season around after a slow start.
A healthy Martin rushed for 1,402 yards a year ago, second in the NFL behind Adrian Peterson. He was even more productive as a rookie in 2012, rushing for 1,454 yards and catching 49 passes for 472 to finish with 1,926 yards from scrimmage — the third-highest total for a first-year player in league history.
“You just see his presence in him being out there. Guys want to fight for him,” quarterback Jameis Winston said. “The first snap, I said, ‘Guys, we have Doug back. … Let’s play football.’ It was pretty big.”
Four different running backs shared the workload while Martin was out, mostly with limited success. Charles Sims and Antone Smith were lost to season-ending injuries during the layoff, and early season pickup Jacquizz Rodgers has been inactive the past two games with a sore foot after topping 100 yards twice in three starts.
Martin returned to practice last week and said he felt fine after the game.
He averaged just 2.1 yards per carry, but exited on a high note after scoring his first touchdown of the season on a 1-yard run in the closing minutes. He had not scored since Dec. 27, also against the Bears.
“There were some points in the game where I felt like I got my old legs back, and they’ll come back with more practice,” Martin said. “I just did a little scout team (last) week and, practicing more, I’ll be just fine.”