The Tampa Bay Buccaneers need a new insurance policy.
Running back Earnest Graham – nicknamed "Insurance" for a versatile skill set that has helped the Buccaneers plug many a hole – will miss the remainder of the 2011 season after suffering a torn Achilles tendon on Sunday at Wembley Stadium. That creates a void of its own that might not be as easy to solve without a player like Graham to step in.
The Bucs did not immediately fill the open roster spot on Tuesday that was created by Graham's move to injured reserve. They also opened up another spot by waiving rookie long-snapper Christian Yount.
In the long run, however, the team will simply rely on the same philosophy – "Next Man Up" – that helped them overcome a series of significant injuries in 2010 and still win 10 games. The philosophy demands that the team, rather than dwelling on what was lost, relies on the next player on the depth chart and expects him to perform even better than the man he has replaced.
In Graham's case, the depth chart flow might be from the other direction. The Buccaneers have played the last two games without their starting tailback, LeGarrette Blount, who has been sidelined with a knee injury suffered in San Francisco on October 9. Obviously, Tampa Bay's coaching staff hopes that the extra rest afforded by the bye week will help get Blount back into the lineup when they return to action in New Orleans on November 6.
Graham's ability to excel in so many different roles had come in handy just one week earlier when he replaced Blount as the starting tailback against New Orleans. The ninth-year veteran ran for 109 yards, his first 100-yard game since 2008, to help the Bucs defeat the visiting Saints, 26-20, and temporarily grab a share of first place in the NFC South.
However, Graham lasted only seven plays into his second start, this one against the Chicago Bears in London. On the first play of Tampa Bay's second offensive possession, Graham took a swing pass out to the left and tried to get upfield. However, he sustained the Achilles injury trying to make a cut in front of linebacker Nick Roach and had to be helped off the field. The Buccaneers finished the game with Kregg Lumpkin as their only healthy tailback and managed just 30 rushing yards in a narrow defeat.
Though he was listed on Tampa Bay's depth chart as the starting fullback, which was his primary role in 2010, Graham had spent the first five weeks of the season as the third-down back. His knowledge of the protection schemes and strong receiving skills had helped him excel in that role, as he had a team-high 23 receptions through the first quarter of the 2011 campaign.
Graham finished 2011 with 206 yards on 37 carries, with a robust 5.6 yards per rush, and 26 receptions for another 163 yards. He currently ranks ninth on the franchise's all-time rushing list with 2,047 yards and 15 touchdowns on 477 carries. Of all running backs in Buccaneer team history with at least 200 carries, only Blount (4.8) has a better career yards-per-carry average than Graham's 4.3.
Yount, an undrafted rookie out of UCLA, handled all of the Bucs' snapping duties on punts and placekicks through the first seven games of the season. While his release temporarily leaves the depth chart blank at that spot, veteran Andrew Economos is eligible to come off the reserve/physically unable to perform list at any time. Economos handled all of the Bucs' long-snapping duties from 2007-10 before suffering an Achilles tendon injury during the 2011 offseason.