Since Earnest Graham first stepped onto the field for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2004, the scene has shifted around him constantly, like a setpiece in a Charlie Kaufman movie.
Graham's backfield mates have changed frequently, as has his quarterback. The offense has taken several different directions and injuries to others have dramatically increased or reduced his workload from time to time. Even Graham's own role in the offense has been a moving target, rarely staying the same from one season to the next.
The one thing that hasn't changed in this whole scenario is Earnest Graham himself.
If it's cliché to call Graham the "consummate team player," then we're probably the worst offenders. It's obvious, but also accurate. At this point, if Graham were to react to a change in his role with anything more than a shrug and a "Let's do it," that would be a story. The seventh-year running back – a former undrafted free agent who has been everything from a core special-teamer to the team's leading rusher – simply and unequivocally will do any job on the football field that the team asks of him.
For instance, if he were asked to be primarily the team's starting fullback but also to prepare himself for a spot in the tailback rotation with Cadillac Williams and Derrick Ward, that's exactly what he would do.
And that may be exactly what Graham does for the Buccaneers in 2010. With Williams coming off a rousing rebound of a 2009 season and now healthy for the first offseason in three years, and with Derrick Ward driven to make his second season in Tampa much more productive, the Bucs' best bet to keep Graham in the mix may be in that hybrid role.
On Tuesday for instance, as the Buccaneers started a second week of OTA practices, Graham split his practice snaps almost straight down the middle between fullback and tailback. On the first two snaps of a full-team run period, Graham lined up at fullback and provided lead blocks for Williams.
Afterwards, Graham merely shrugged (it's true!), smiled and said, "You know how the game is."
Graham very memorably emerged as a viable lead NFL back in 2007, after the first of Williams' major knee mishaps and some concurrent injuries to Michael Pittman. Having carried the ball all of 51 times for 215 over his first three NFL season, Graham suddenly exploded for 898 yards on 222 carries, scoring 10 touchdowns in the process and catching 49 passes. It was the kind of breakout season that might have made many a backup tailback – a player who had mostly secured his roster spot in previous years by proving his worth in the kick-and-return game – reluctant to step back.
Graham didn't worry about that. He just stepped sideways, whichever way the team needed him. In 2008, former Buc star Warrick Dunn returned and Cadillac Williams re-emerged late in the season after a long rehab process. Graham himself missed some time due to injury, but he also accepted the occasional work at fullback, and ended up contributing in a wide variety of ways. That included 563 yards on 132 carries.
In 2009, the Bucs added Ward and, early in the spring, envisioned him splitting carries with Graham, who had returned from his own ankle injury. At the time, the return of Williams from a second knee injury was hoped-for but no guarantee. As it turned out, Williams came back strong, played in 16 games for the first time in his career and reassumed the starting role. Graham played a lot of fullback and had exactly many catches (14) as carries. It wasn't that Graham was ineffective – he still averaged 4.7 yards per carry, his fourth straight season at 4.0 or better – he was just more valuable to the team in other ways.
And that may be the case again in 2010. No matter how the backfield is arranged, it's likely that Graham will be a key part of it, and he also believes it's likely the results will be better than they were in the first year of the Williams-Ward-Graham trio.
We left a lot of things in on the table [in 2010]," he said. "We didn't get to do much. We didn't get to show much at all. We started to jell a little bit at the end of the year with me playing fullback and catching it out of the backfield and blocking. Derrick and Cadillac started to come on strong. There were a lot of things going on because of the changes."
One of the changes was former Quarterbacks Coach Greg Olson taking over as offensive coordinator, a role Olson retains in 2010, with much more time to put his full system into place. Graham says he is very comfortable in Olson's offense and believed it could have produced great results in the ground game last year had the circumstances been different. Graham definitely believes the Bucs have the backfield manpower to make it work.
"The guys here are more than capable," he said. "I'll put this group up against any group in the league. We're definitely looking to make our stamp this year, like we were supposed to do last year. Right now, things are intact. Every day we come in here we're building."
It's always easier to build, of course, when you can start your construction on a solid foundation. And few Buccaneer players have looked more solid over the last half-decade – steady, sturdy and fundamentally unchanged – than Earnest Graham.