Carrying the ball was only a small part of what RB Earnest Graham contributed on Sunday
Injuries left the Bucs without a healthy fullback midway through Sunday's game, but RB Earnest Graham stepped up and filled the void, paving the way for a dominating win and – guess what? – having a blast in the process
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' only healthy fullback, second-year man Byron Storer, lay on the field in visible pain after injuring his knee covering a kickoff in the first quarter. Usual starter B.J. Askew was already out, inactive with a hamstring injury, so when Storer eventually limped off the field it left the Bucs in a bit of a pinch.
Scanning the sideline, Head Coach Jon Gruden scrambled to find a fill-in fullback, initially reaching out to one of his tight ends.
"After we lost Byron [Storer], we ran some single-back plays and had some success," Gruden said. "Then, we regrouped on the sidelines and got Alex Smith ready to be a fullback, which is a contingency plan every week."
But another voice eventually reached Gruden's ears on the sideline, volunteering to accept the challenge and play fullback for the rest of the game.
"Earnest Graham came out of nowhere and said, 'I can do this,'" Gruden said.
Actually, considering the source, maybe it wasn't that surprising to hear the Bucs' always-unselfish No. 1 runner volunteer to pave the way instead of taking the carries himself.
"I came to Coach Gruden and told him, 'If you need a fullback, I'm your fullback,'" Graham said. "He was talking to a couple tight ends and I told him that if he needed a fullback, I'm his fullback."
Graham has forged a reputation – and deservedly so – as a team-first player, even after earning the starting job at tailback during his breakout season last fall. A career special-teamer before injuries rocketed him from third on the depth chart up to the top last season, Graham even talked in training camp about how much he missed his kickoff duties. He has often begged the coaches to let him reprise his special teams role in addition to the starting running back duties.
The coaching staff wasn't about to let their starting tailback cover kickoffs, but doing whatever is asked of him is still Graham's calling card, according to Gruden.
"[Playing fullback] was part of his training when he got here," Gruden said. "He was a 'jack of all trades.' He was a guy that played fullback, tailback and was on the punt and kickoff team. He was a guy that was our personal protector and all those years and preparation paid off for him today. Earnest didn't just go into the hole today and curl up. He laid himself into the hole with as much authority as he runs the football with. I've got a lot of respect for what he did and our team is very impressed by that."
Grinning from ear to ear as he stood near his locker after the game, Graham talked about his day playing fullback and how much fun he had blocking for veteran back Warrick Dunn. Granted, fullback is a position Graham has some experience with, but you get the feeling he'd volunteer to play linebacker, left tackle, or even punt if he felt the team needed him to.
"It felt great," Graham said. "I grew up watching Warrick Dunn. For me to be able to step up and block for Warrick Dunn and help him to a 100-yard game was fantastic. It's something I'm always going to remember. There's no better feeling than blocking for a guy and feeling him come off your butt and gain 20 yards. That was a great feeling for me tonight and I enjoyed every minute of it."
As awestruck as Graham said he felt to be blocking for former childhood hero Warrick Dunn, the respect was mutual.
"You can't say enough about Earnest," Dunn said. "The guy sacrificed his day to get in there and block and he did a great job. He was reading it the right way, putting hits on guys and he's the ultimate team guy. I'm speechless a little bit because of what he sacrificed for this football team today. That's one of the most unselfish acts I've seen on a football field in a long time."
As much as Graham enjoyed playing fullback, the experiment could have been costly if his production at the position was subpar. But bringing Graham in to block certainly didn't result in a dip in the level of play at either backfield position, as Dunn finished the day with 115 rushing yards, while Graham punched in a one-yard score of his own. He helped out two drives with catches of over 20 yards. And he also tallied a handful of crushing blocks on Carolina defenders, a stat that isn't officially recorded but one that Graham sounds like he enjoys even more than scoring touchdowns.
"We had a drive where we were very physical, a very physical drive, and that's what football's all about," Graham said. "I had a blast out there on the field. To be able to block for somebody I grew up trying to emulate, I had a blast. It was the most fun I'd had in a game, period.
"It's just great on all fronts. This is what you live for, as far as the league is concerned – playing in a tough game against a rival and coming out and doing everything well. It's a great feeling. A lot of guys had to step up. Myself, [Jeremy] Zuttah, as well as some other guys had to step in and be big tonight. We were able to do that. That's what the NFL is all about."
Even when he was jokingly asked if he would consent to playing fullback full-time if needed, Graham's response was typically straightforward.
"If I've got to do it, I've got to do it, you know what I mean?" Graham said. "I enjoy it. It's football. I play football for a living. I enjoy it."
He didn't even hesitate when asked if he missed getting his usual opportunities to carry the ball.
"Not at all," Graham said. "I will not lie to you. Not at all."
And as the team savored a satisfying victory over a division rival and a first-place position through six weeks of the season, Gruden was every bit as appreciative of his star running back – or is that running back/fullback? – and made sure that Graham's contributions didn't go unnoticed.
"I would just like to tell our fans what Earnest Graham did today is what this game is all about," Gruden said. "He played fullback, led block, caught the ball and played fullback today. We have two injuries, obviously. B.J. Askew and Byron Storer are out and Earnest Graham stepped up, unselfishly so, and played as good a fullback as we've had a fullback play since I've been here.
"I just want everyone to know, although he didn't show up on the stat sheet, what he did today makes coaching worthwhile. I want to thank him for that."