LAKE BUENA VISTA
Earnest Graham waited almost four seasons to start a game at running back in the NFL.
But once he was finally pushed onto the field, there was almost no way he was allowed to come off it.
The position had been so depleted by injuries that Graham played on first down, second down, third down, goal line — all the time.
He played when he was tired, hurt and bleeding. The football tends to get heavy when you have to carry the offense, too.
"That was rough, and I didn't stay healthy last year," said Graham, 28, who rushed for 898 yards and 10 touchdowns. "I played hurt for a while. I took every single play for about five or six games. I didn't come off the field and that's rough. Numberswise it came out nice, but there's nothing like a fresh back in the game, especially when the defense has wilted. To be able to have a fresh back to come in there … we've got that now and it's going to be trouble for some teams."
Graham, who signed a three-year, $10.5-million extension this month, has plenty of help this season.
If it is power between the tackles the Bucs want, Graham will still be their man. If the situation calls for a do-it-all back with flash and dash, Warrick Dunn will get the ball. If it's pure explosion and speed they need, make room for Michael Bennett.
"We've got some different kind of runners which I think is important in pro football," coach Jon Gruden said. "You know Earnest has his own style, Michael Bennett has breakaway speed and, of course, Warrick Dunn is shifty, quick, an elusive player that will certainly give us something we need."
Saturday, Graham got the first training camp reps. But judging by how much the offense is tailored to Dunn's talents, the order certainly could change.
At 33, Dunn is one of only 22 players with 10,000 career rushing yards. His production fell last season to 720 yards and 3.2 yards per carry, breaking a string of three seasons in which he averaged more than 1,200 yards. The dip was due largely to the conviction of quarterback Michael Vick and the implosion of the Falcons under then-coach Bobby Petrino.
Dunn, however, bounced around the field at Disney's Wide World of Sports like a new puppy.
"Because I'm old doesn't mean I've lost it," Dunn, who spent his first five seasons in Tampa Bay, said. "I'm still hungry, I'm young at heart and I still have the desire to go out and play at a high level. They're going to give me the opportunity to prove that I can still play.
"The way they're trying to install things and utilize me right now, I expect to be out there a lot and really just be all over the field and ready to make plays. If I've lost a step, if I can't do certain things, I think my experience will help me get through it."
Gruden has always believed Dunn would be a perfect fit. Just because he's using an older model doesn't mean he will take his foot off the gas pedal.
"His role has always been a primary role wherever he's been, and I don't believe a lot has changed other than he's back in Tampa," Gruden said of the former FSU Seminole entering his 12th season. ''He still has first step quickness, he's an excellent pass receiver, he's a very good blitz pickup guy and he's a guy that can carry the ball and run a number of different plays. He's good in a single-back set and he's good behind the fullback, so he's going to give us some competition."
Bennett, 29, a world-class sprinter acquired in a trade with the Chiefs just before the deadline in October, had only limited knowledge of the Bucs offense. He rushed for 189 yards and one touchdown.
But after re-signing as a free agent, he should be more effective in the passing game this season.
"To get here and be able to use my speed and be able to isolate on a linebacker, I mean, guys lick their chops for that," Bennett said. "I think with the backs we have, all of us do a great job in doing that.
"You look at Earnest Graham, a big, athletic, power guy with speed and moves. Then you look at Warrick Dunn, a slasher, a guy with moves. Myself. Speed, slash, moves … we do really complement each other very, very well."
What could make this triple option so effective is that each player is unselfish.
"They'll find a way to use all of us," Graham said. "Coach Gruden is great (at) having different packages. There are a lot of situations that come in football. The starter is just the person that runs onto the field and takes the first play. If you understand anything about football, man, you have to know that. You're going to need all those guys in the backfield. It's a long season. It's a grind. So we're all going to have to lean on each other."
Simms in action
The quarterback works with Jon Gruden again — a bit awkwardly, he admits. 6C
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