Bobby Rainey is making the most of an opportunity to prove he belongs in the NFL.
The little known running back who's playing for his third team in less than two seasons has helped the Tampa Bay Buccaneers win two straight following an 0-8 start that put coach Greg Schiano's job in jeopardy.
He's averaging more than 5 yards per carry since being plucked from the waiver wire and thrust into the lineup because of injuries to Doug Martin and Mike James.
The former Western Kentucky standout who entered the league as an undrafted college free agent and wound up sporting a Super Bowl ring before appearing his first regular-season game scored the winning touchdown in Tampa Bay's first victory.
On Sunday, the 5-foot-8, 212-pounder who has heard his entire life that he's too small to excel in a big man's game rushed for 163 yards and scored three TDs to pace a 41-28 rout of the Atlanta Falcons.
Rainey, released by the Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns before landing in Tampa Bay, never doubted he could play on the game's highest level.
"My idol is Barry Sanders. I like all the small running backs — Warrick Dunn, all those type of guys. And the one we just played (Atlanta's Jacquizz Rodgers), he's small, too," Rainey said. "He told me: 'We've got to represent for the short guys.' And I told him, 'Most definitely. We've got to stick together.'"
The Bucs play at Detroit on Sunday.
Rainey left Western Kentucky as the school's career rushing leader and began his rookie year on Baltimore's practice squad. He was promoted to the active roster in October 2012 but suffered a season-ending knee injury before appearing in a regular-season game for the Ravens, who went on to win the Super Bowl.
The 26-year-old signed with Cleveland after being waived by Baltimore in August. He averaged 24.5 yards on six kickoff returns and rushed for 34 yards on 13 carries before being released by the Browns last month.
The Bucs signed Rainey the day after Martin suffered a shoulder injury that will sideline the 2012 Pro Bowl selection for the rest of the season.
The diminutive running back was pressed into action when James went down with a broken ankle during the first quarter of then-winless Tampa Bay's Monday Night Football appearance against Miami.
The night before the Dolphins game, Rainey got a call from his former college coach Willie Taggart, who's in his first season at nearby South Florida, which also plays its home games at Raymond James Stadium.
"I told him what I tell our football team," Taggart said. "The spotlight does strange things to some people. Some people show up and show out, and some people hide in the spotlight. You've only got one time to make a first impression, Bobby. Make them know your name."
Rainey carried eight times for 45 yards, including a 31-yard burst, and scored the winning TD against the Dolphins as the Bucs became the last team in the NFL to win this season.
He handled a heavier workload against the Falcons, finishing with 30 carries and scoring on runs of 43 and 3 yards, as well as a 4-yard pass reception.
"He's got a good feel, and when I say that it's just he's a football player," Schiano said.
"You go back and look at his history at Western Kentucky, he's their all-time everything. He doesn't lack for confidence, although he's not boisterous or full of himself," Schiano added. "He's just knows he can play, and he's got a good feel as far as patience and running the football. He gives the play a chance to develop, and that's a guy who's had a lot of touches over his career — not in this league, but over his career."
The Bucs recommitted to running the ball three weeks ago and have responded by posting three of their top four rushing performances of the season.
With 186 yards on the ground against the Falcons, Tampa Bay now has rushed for at least 140 yards in three consecutive games for the first time since 2005.
Rainey feels fortunate to be a part of that. He never doubted his ability in Baltimore, where he played behind Ray Rice and others, or in Cleveland, where Trent Richardson began the season as the starter.
"I don't look at it as Trent Richardson is there or Ray Rice is there. It's competition," Rainey said. "If you're in front of me, my goal is to get in front of you, period. That's the way the game is. I don't get into the names because at the end of the day, it's still football. ... I just use it as motivation."
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