Last year, Earnest Graham took the lead in the running game when Cadillac Williams went down...Now the situation may be reversed
The 2008 season may be over for Earnest Graham, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' inspirational workhorse of a running back.
At his Monday morning press conference, Head Coach Jon Gruden stopped just short of saying Graham is headed to injured reserve after the fifth-year back suffered an ankle injury on his first carry against Minnesota on Sunday.
If Graham is finished for the season, it will be a tremendous blow to the Buccaneers' offense, which has relied on his versatile talents to stay effective through a rash of backfield injuries. Graham is not only the team's leading rusher with 563 yards on 132 carries, he is also it's fifth-leading receiver (23 for 174), its top touchdown producer (four) and a more-than-capable lead blocker for the rest of the team's runners. Tampa Bay found that out in October when fullbacks B.J. Askew and Byron Storer were hurt and Graham selflessly volunteered to switch to that position.
"I believe Earnest Graham's ankle looks to be a serious injury and his status for the rest of the season is very much in question right now," said Gruden, who also expressed significant concern over the knee injury suffered by rookie linebacker Geno Hayes. "It doesn't look like he'll play anytime soon. I'm just very disappointed for our guy Earnest. He means a lot to us. He's done so much for us here in the last couple years. He's a key reason why we are where we are. We'll have to make some adjustments, obviously."
The Buccaneers are in the unusual position of having a potential replacement for Graham that is both a proven NFL standout and a bit of a mystery. That man, of course, is fourth-year running back Cadillac Williams, who last played in a game in September of 2007.
Williams has spent most of the last 14 months pursuing a grueling rehab program after he suffered a serious knee injury at Carolina last September 30. He was just activated from the Reserve/Physically Unable to Perform list last week, but the Buccaneers made him one of their game-day inactives against Minnesota as they sought to ease him back into action carefully.
The Bucs will obviously still use caution with Williams, the 2005 NFL Rookie of the Year, but Graham's injury could speed up the timetable.
"We brought Cadillac up with the understanding that he's ready to go," said Gruden. "He's a workhorse-type back and that's what we've been trying to bring him back to, not just a situational runner but an every-down workhorse-type back; a guy that can handle it in short yardage and goal line; a guy that can finish the game with repeated runs in the four-minute drill where you know that the clock is the enemy. But I think his stamina will continue to be evaluated and we'll just let you know."
Williams ran for a team rookie-record 1,178 yards on 290 carries in 2005 after the Buccaneers made him the fifth overall pick in the '05 draft. He lost two whole games and parts of several others to injury that year but finished the season strong with 231 yards in the last two weeks of the regular season.
He played in 14 games again in 2006, missing the end of the year due to injury and posting 798 yards on 225 carries. Williams was just hitting his stride in Carolina in 2007 when he was felled by the knee injury. That mishap, of course, paved the way for Graham to emerge as a legitimate starting NFL running back. It would be fitting, in a way, for Williams now to fill the void left by the likely absence of Graham.
Of course, the Buccaneers didn't have Warrick Dunn last year, either. Dunn returned to Tampa this season after six years in Atlanta and has proved to be a very good complement to Graham. He is second on the team with 476 rushing yards, is averaging 4.4 yards per carry and is also fourth on the squad with 26 receptions for 207 yards. After Graham was hurt on the Bucs' first drive on Sunday, Dunn took over as the every-down back and gained 53 very tough yards on 20 carries against a stout Vikings front. Dunn also caught four passes for 65 yards in the game.
"We've got a very good back here in Warrick Dunn," said Gruden. "He had a lot of yards yesterday from scrimmage. We'll see how it goes. Clifton [Smith] has got to take care of the football. All those backs will have to step up. It's good to have Askew back yesterday as well. We might have to have him carry it, too."
Askew got his first carry as a Buccaneer and scored his first NFL touchdown on Sunday when he bulled in for a one-yard score in the third quarter on a fullback plunge. At Michigan, Askew played quite a bit of tailback, rushing 343 times for 1,580 yards and 17 touchdowns in his collegiate career.
And Smith, the rookie, is just beginning to emerge after being added to the active roster three weeks ago. He got the promotion primarily to return punts and kickoffs but has actually proved to be a valuable weapon from scrimmage. Short but solid and very quick, Smith has carried seven times for 38 yards and caught three passes for 15 yards. He has also experienced the highest of highs with his 97-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in Kansas City and suffered a few lows with a fumble in each of his three games played. Gruden clearly thinks highly of Smith's abilities and is likely to continue to expand the rookie's role.
"The guy's a good player," said Gruden. "As a matter of fact, he's an outstanding prospect. But he knows that taking care of the ball is the number-one objective of anybody that touches the ball. You hold the organization in your hands every time you touch. That's something we'll work hard to clean up, but we need him."
Finally, the Buccaneers could check out any available free agents to see if there is help available at the position. More likely, though, they will get that help from within.
"You've got an injury, you've got to respond to it," said Gruden. "We'll bring in some other backs that we like. We do have a guy that we do like a lot that will be activated and it will be a good opportunity for Carnell to resume his football career."