RB Earnest Graham loves the idea of sharing carries in a productive Bucs backfield
Three weeks ago, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers signed free agent running back Derrick Ward, even though their incumbent starter at the position, Earnest Graham, is recovered from a leg injury and still under contract.
At the time, you may have heard that Graham was okay with that maneuver, but that's not strictly accurate. When pressed for a stronger reaction to Ward's arrival, Graham admitted that he didn't like the signing.
No, in fact, he loved it.
Graham has a well-deserved reputation as a team player, but he isn't a clichÃ© machine, and nor is he a simple company shill. What Graham is is an NFL veteran who has recognized the evolution of his profession and become convinced that sharing will actually improve his career.
"I love the idea," said Graham of becoming a two-headed backfield weapon with Ward. "I love the idea, man. I went through a season two years ago where I was the only back and I got all the carries and never came off the field. That's tough. It's tough, man. Last year, playing some fullback…it's tough to make it in the league like that. I think it's changed somewhat. I don't think you can make it through the league like you could years ago. I'm definitely looking forward to it.
Graham isn't complaining. That heavy workload in 2007 came as the result of back-to-back injuries to Cadillac Williams and Michael Pittman, unfortunate occurrences that, had they not happened, might have kept Graham from ever getting his shot. He had been a special teams standout and a spot ballcarrier for most of his five-year career, undrafted, hardworking and well out of the spotlight.
Williams was lost for the season in Game Four, Pittman went down the next week and missed two months and midseason trade pickup Michael Bennett struggled to learn the offense. Graham essentially did it all, and thrived, with 898 yards and 10 touchdowns despite only 10 starts.
With Williams still a question mark heading into 2008, the Buccaneers brought back one of their own former stars, Warrick Dunn, and he and Graham proved to be a good tandem. Through the first six games, Tampa Bay had the league's sixth-best rushing attack and Graham and Dunn had carved the load almost completely down the middle — 72 carries for 404 yards (5.6 avg.) and three touchdowns for Graham; 75 carries for 386 yards (5.1 avg.) and one score for Dunn.
However, Graham's injury on the first play of Game 10 doomed the pair, the Bucs' running game slid to 15th in the league and Dunn was released in February. Still, Graham got a glimpse of how the shared backfield could work, and that should be even more effective with Ward, who is in his prime and is more of a power runner.
"I think only averaged about 13 or 14 carries a game last year," said Graham. "It felt good to be able to do that. I always felt comfortable that I could do that. The year before I was nicked up and I was the only guy out there, so I was very tired. I was doing all the routes, all the running, all the protecting, so I really didn't have my legs. Last year, I had Warrick and I was a little fresher towards the end [of his 10 games]."
Ward has seen it work, too, so much so that he cracked the 1,000-yard mark last year with the New York Giants despite starting just three games. He was part of the "Earth, Wind and Fire" backfield in New York with Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw, a trio that led the Giants to a league-best 157.4 rushing yards per game.
The Giants weren't the only team splitting carries to great success. Of the top seven rushing teams in the NFL last year, six had very obvious time-sharing situations: New York, Atlanta (Michael Turner and Jerious Norwood), Carolina (DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart), Baltimore (Willis McGahee, Le'Ron McClain and Ray Rice), New England (Sammy Morris, Kevin Faulk and LaMont Jordan) and Tennessee (Chris Johnson and LenDale White). Now, it's fair to say that New England's backfield distribution was the result of Laurence Maroney's injury, but the others on the last were obviously determined to get several backs into action on a week-to-week basis.
Graham thinks his pairing with Ward — and a possible return by Williams from another knee injury — could put the Bucs in the same category, in terms of both intentions and effectiveness.
"The potential is through the ceiling, especially with the way we're talking about running the ball," said Graham. "Who doesn't like watching Carolina play and watching those two guys tag-team other teams? We'd like to present some of the same problems.
"We're both strong guys, built strong. We can both take a certain amount of carries, and I definitely think we're going to end up splitting them. There's nothing like a fresh back, and we've seen that the last couple years with some other teams. So I think having both of us fresh, having Cadillac, having Clifton [Smith] provide some other things, I think it's going to be fun."
In just a few weeks of listening to the Bucs' reconstituted coaching staff, including incoming Offensive Coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski, Graham has become convinced that the Bucs are going to be a more run-oriented team in 2009 than they've been in recent years. With Ward to help him carry the load, Graham believes the Bucs could eventually be the kind of team that wears down its opponents with a physical ground game.
"[The potential] is there, without a doubt," he said. "With the way Derrick runs the ball, the way I run the ball, the way Cadillac runs the ball when he's ready...it's there. I definitely think that, if everyone's healthy, we have the talent to do that.
"I think running the ball is going to be more of a priority. But schemes are schemes. I think it definitely depends on how we gel in the locker room, with a mix of new players."