By KATHERINE SMITH ksmith@tampatrib.com
Published: Oct 15, 2004






TAMPA - He climbed a ladder and hung blinds. Then he touched up the walls with paint.
Michael Pittman even ran around with his shoulder pads and helmet on, at his neighborhood park in the dark after everyone else was gone.

The Bucs running back did everything he could while serving a three-game suspension for violating the NFL's Personal Conduct Policy. What he couldn't do was practice and play with his teammates.

With that suspension behind him, Pittman is excited about once again being with his teammates and playing football.

``It's good to be back at work,'' he said.

It shows. In the two games Pittman has played in since the suspension, the offense has a different look.

``We missed him,'' Bucs coach Jon Gruden said. ``He's in great shape. He's a phenomenal, physical specimen. He can run all day and all night and never say a word. That's why we missed him. No complaining, no nothing. Just full speed, authority in his practice and his play. He's reliable.''

Pittman, 29, proved reliable during the Bucs' final drive against New Orleans on Sunday. His 10-yard run to convert third-and-5 that allowed the Bucs to run out the clock for their first victory prompted Gruden to pump his fist in exaltation, reminiscent of his Super Bowl sideline celebrations.

``The last play that Mike ran couldn't have been better,'' running backs coach Art Valero said. ``It was crucial. It gave the offense some confidence. To have the defense watch them and be able to celebrate on the sideline was great for a change.''

Pittman got a lot of pats on the back from the defensive players.

``Our defense has kept us in each and every game we've played this year and we felt as an offense, we talked about it before that drive, we wanted to go out, finish and put the game on our shoulders for a change,'' quarterback Brian Griese said.

``That's an attitude, I think, and it's an attitude we need to have and continue to work on in practice. I think it's an attitude of putting teams away rather than giving them a chance.''

All week leading up to the New Orleans game, Gruden stressed the importance of having closers in the game - players who can shut down the opponent. Last Sunday, that was Pittman, who converted three of the Bucs' seven third downs, two in that final drive.

He helped the Bucs clinch the 20-17 victory, only the third time in the Gruden era the Bucs have won by four or fewer points (they're 3-8 in those situations).

In the two games since his return, Pittman is averaging 4.1 yards per carry, despite the fact he admits to not being in full game shape.

Valero notices something different about Pittman, 6- foot, 218 pounds, since he's been back.

``The one thing you see is that Mike is very, very hungry,'' Valero said. ``He missed this game a lot. Hanging wallpaper and painting is fun for a while, but that's not what he does for a living.

``He's a lot fresher right now and we're relying on him a lot.''

In the absence of Charlie Garner, who is out for the season with a knee injury, Pittman is the go-to guy in the running game. It's a familiar role for Pittman, who has led the Bucs in rushing the past two seasons, but one he cherishes more now.

``Sometimes when you get something taken away from you, when you get it back, you appreciate it a lot more,'' Pittman said. ``I appreciate this game more. I appreciate my teammates more. I'm not taking anything for granted.''

That includes winning. Pittman wants to help make it two games in a row by having the time of his life.

``If you're out there relaxed and having fun, the game will come to you,'' Pittman said. ``I caught myself out there last year trying to press and make the big plays and trying too hard.

``I'm having a good time this year. I'm still looking to get better and I think I'm getting better each week.''