RB Earnest Graham shares many positive traits with his new backfield mate, Derrick Ward
Last fall, about the time Jerious Norwood was adding his breakaway runs to Michael Turner's between-the-tackle bruising, or Jonathan Stewart was doing his best DeAngelo Williams impression, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' brass had this thought: We're on the wrong end of this equation.
Buccaneer management has changed some since the end of 2008, with Raheem Morris and Mark Dominik taking over as head coach and general manager, respectively, but the impressions of last fall have remained fresh. One-two backfield punches (and in some cases, one-two-three combinations) have become the rage in the NFL, and the Buccaneers want in on the action.
Thus the signing of former New York running back Derrick Ward, he of the "Earth, Wind and Fire" combo in the Giants' backfield. With Ward and holdover Earnest Graham, and perhaps at some point Cadillac Williams, the Buccaneers suddenly have the sort of multi-pronged approach that has proven so effective in their own division. After all, the Turner/Norwood pairing and the Williams/Stewarts duo helped Atlanta and Carolina finish second and third in the league in rushing in 2008, respectively.
"That's something we thought about during the season you just saw, especially every time you lined up against our division opponents," said Dominik. "You got your dose of Turner-Norwood and it was…fun. We realized that we would like to let our opponents to deal with that also. Derrick Ward is a productive downhill runner who can make the quick cut, the quick decision and gain positive yardage. He did that consistently with the Giants over the last two seasons."
Ward passed 1,000 yards for New York last season despite starting only three games in 2008. He said upon his introduction in Tampa that he cares not in the least about how many games he eventually starts as a Buccaneer, only that he helps the offense succeed. That's not surprising, given the humbling, step-by-step path he has followed to his current level of success.
Ward, at least, was a seventh-round draft pick back in 2004, though he first landed on the New York Jets' practice squad before being signed by the Giants. Graham wasn't drafted at all, and he wasn't really unearthed as an NFL-caliber back until 2007, when injuries to several players thrust him into the limelight. Both Ward and Graham have logged many minutes on special teams, both covering and returning kicks. Both have worked extremely hard to get to where they are heading into 2009.
"I think they both have somewhat of a great past, which I think has got them to where they are today," said Dominik. "They both had to earn everything they've ever gotten, and I'm personally a big fan of that. I just think that shows a lot of passion towards the game. That's why we thought, in discussions, that they would work very well together and we're excited for them to share the backfield together."
The Buccaneers had three placekickers on the roster after last week's signing of Mike Nugent, but are now pared down to the one-on-one competition the team has engineered between Nugent and incumbent Matt Bryant.
The Bucs have announced the release of kicker Shane Andrus, who was one of 10 free agents signed by the team on January 8. Those players were signed to reserve/future contracts, which means they were not on a team when the 2008 campaign ended and they were inked to deals that officially began with the opening of the 2009 league season.
Andrus had spent the previous three years in camp with the Indianapolis Colts, trying to crack a roster that included Pro Bowler Adam Vinatieri. He also kicked in the now-defunct NFL Europa, helping the Hamburg Sea Devils win the last league championship in 2007.
Even without Andrus, the Buccaneers will presumably take two kickers to camp for the first time since 2006, Bryant's second year in Tampa. Bryant was joined in camp in '06 by first-year man Xavier Beitia but easily retained the job. Bryant has handled virtually all of the team's placekicking duties for the last four years and has posted an 83.1% field goal success rate that ranks first in team history.
Nugent will provide significant competition. A second-round draft pick in 2005, Nugent has made 81.5% of his field goal tries over the past four seasons with the New York Jets. He missed all of one game in 2008 due to a thigh injury.
What's in a Number?
Though things can change significantly between now and the start of the 2009 regular season, several of the Buccaneers' newcomers have decided upon jersey numbers to don in pewter and red.
Running back Derrick Ward wore #34 with the New York Giants but his new squad already has an established player in that jersey, and it happens to be his primary backfield mate, Earnest Graham. Ward has elected to wear #28, which was recently vacated by released RB Warrick Dunn. Safety Tanard Jackson wore that number in 2007 as a rookie but gave it up to Dunn upon the running back's return to Tampa in '08. Jackson is now established as #36.
Tight end Kellen Winslow wore #80 while a member of the Cleveland Browns for the last five years, but that jersey remained occupied when unrestricted free agent Michael Clayton re-signed with the team last week. Winslow wore #81 at the University of Miami but will begin his Buccaneer career as #84.
Others of note: Nugent has elected to trade in his #1 from New York and go with #5. Wearing #1 instead will be returning receiver Paris Warren, who has previously worn 82 and 18. Newly-signed linebacker Niko Koutouvides will wear #53, once made famous by Pro Bowler Shelton Quarles.