Tampa Bay Buccaneers

One for the Team

RB Earnest Graham, who has already proved his worth to the Buccaneers in countless manners over the last seven years, found another selfless way to do so during Sunday's season opener against Dallas


RB Earnest Graham (right) will gladly take on any job that helps the Buccaneers win

Earnest Graham cannot do everything. It only seems that way.

In reality, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back probably couldn't hold up at defensive tackle in the NFL (though he'd probably be willing to try) and it's doubtful that he has the arm to play quarterback. His punting experience is quite limited.

But if Buccaneers Head Coach Raheem Morris could put the essence of Graham – his makeup, his unselfishness, his dedication to the team – at every position on the field, he would without hesitation.

Graham is part of a crowded Buccaneer backfield that could be a mess of personality conflicts and cries for more playing time if it weren't for the team-first attitude adopted by the whole crew. Instead, the harmonious quintet of Graham, Cadillac Williams, Derrick Ward and Clifton Smith blasted for 174 yards, two touchdowns and 5.6 yards per carry in the season opener on Sunday.

"If I could just go copy that running back room and just put it throughout my team and change the body types, I would," said Morris. Indeed, a defensive tackle-sized Earnest Graham would most definitely be an asset.

All three of the primary tailbacks (Smith is more of an occasional third-down, change-of-pace back), have expressed their willingness to share carries in the Bucs' attack. Morris has opened the season with a "2-2-1" plan, intending to give two series to the first back into the game, two to the next and one to the third before starting the rotation over again. After Williams' stunning preseason ascension to the top of the depth chart, it is Graham that, at least for now, is getting the "1" in that "2-2-1."

Anyone who thought Graham would be upset by this setup has not followed his NFL career. An undrafted free agent in 2003, he lost half of his rookie season to an injury but was intriguing enough to the Buccaneers to be re-signed later in the fall to the practice squad when he was eligible. The former prep "Mr. Football" in Florida and standout runner for the Florida Gators made the roster the next year and for the next three seasons was a special teams standout and occasional fill-in in the backfield.

When injuries decimated the Bucs' backfield in 2007, Graham stepped in and immediately proved to be an NFL starter-caliber back, racking up 898 yards and 10 touchdowns. He was the starter in 2008 but missed the last six games due to a season-ending injury. Before that occurred, he actually spent a good part of the season playing fullback after that position was torn apart by injuries. In that instance, as in every other moment of his career, he approached his assignment with relish and without complaint.

But if anyone still doubts Graham's team-player credentials, we give you the Dallas game as Exhibit A.

Williams started the game and was combustibly hot, ripping off several long runs en route to 77 halftime yards. Ward got his first carry at the beginning of the second quarter and was just as productive, alternating carries with Williams on a 78-yard touchdown drive. It was mostly Ward for the rest of the second quarter, which should have put Graham in line to get his series when the second half began.

Instead, it was Williams in the backfield again as the Bucs started the third quarter. Was Graham getting skipped?

"That was a product of Earnest Graham coming to me, telling me to keep those guys in because they're hot," said a clearly impressed Morris. "Earnest Graham came to me and I said, 'It's your series,' and he said 'No, put Cadillac in. He's hot.' This team has to become that way across the board. That's what it's got to be about."

In the end, Graham took one handoff for one yard while Williams and Ward combined for 159 of those 174 yards. But Graham still found a way to make an impact. Williams and Ward also scored once each on a pair of one-yard runs, and in both cases, Graham came in to play fullback and supply the lead block. On the first one, Williams followed Graham through a hole over right guard to slam it on third-and-goal.

On the second one, Graham essentially replaced injured tight end John Gilmore, one of the team's best blockers. With Gilmore out, the team used its only fullback B.J. Askew, as a motion blocker on the edge of the line, a role usually filled by a tight end. Graham then took Askew's spot in the backfield.

Morris wasn't the least bit surprised to hear Graham volunteer to take one for the team. This is the same player who brought up the idea of playing fullback during last year's crisis at the position.

"I've been around Earnest Graham long enough," said Morris. "We preach that. We talk about it. It's what we have to become. Now we have to get some other people like that. We have to do that in other rooms. We have to move that thing around. That has to spread. That has to be contagious."

Of Graham's 1,676 career rushing yards entering the 2009 season, 1,461 came in the last two seasons. During that time, he averaged 4.1 yards per carry, scored 14 touchdowns and caught 72 passes. Clearly, Graham is a very talented NFL running back who will be needed in the Bucs' attack at some point this season, perhaps as early as next Sunday in Buffalo. That may not have been the case on opening weekend…and yet Graham still found a way to make an enormous impact on his team. That's something at which he's proved particularly adept.

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