TAMPA — Jon Gruden and Warrick Dunn walked away from a workout together on Thursday, the sound of their laughter carrying across the field. It made you wonder if, somewhere, Earnest Graham was listening.
The Buccaneers are more than halfway through voluntary offseason workouts, and Graham remains conspicuously absent. It is not yet a holdout. It is not yet a showdown.
But it is getting worrisome. For both the Bucs, and for Graham.
"He's a key member of our team," Gruden said. "I hope Earnest gets in here soon."
Let's begin by acknowledging Graham deserves a raise. It's hard to begrudge him that.
His $605,000 salary for 2008 does not match his expanded role in Tampa Bay's offense. And, after five years of knocking around the league, this may be his best and only chance to cash in on a bigger contract.
So, yes, Earnest Graham is right.
But that doesn't mean he will win.
There's a difference between valuable and indispensable, and there is no way Graham will negotiate his way across that divide. At least not in this contract debate.
The truth is, running backs in this league come and go. Tiki Barber retired, and the Giants plugged in Brandon Jacobs and won a Super Bowl. The Packers lost Ahman Green and found Ryan Grant. The Broncos recently had four different 1,000-yard rushers in a five-year span. Heck, the Bucs went through Cadillac Williams and Michael Pittman before turning desperately to Graham last season.
The point is there are a handful of truly elite backs, and then there is everyone else. Maybe Graham, 28, deserves more than the typical NFL back, but he is not going to get sackfuls of cash thrown in his locker.
The Bucs, rightfully so, have already lined up alternatives. They re-signed Michael Bennett in February. They picked up Dunn a few weeks later. Both are scheduled to make more money than Graham this season.
Again, that can't make Graham happy. And the Bucs should be willing to bump his salary somewhere between Bennett's $1.25-million three-year average salary and Dunn's $3-million two-year average.
But Graham has to realize a huge signing bonus and a long-term commitment for a running back with three 100-yard games to his name just isn't a wise business decision. Particularly for a player already under contract.
What's surprising about this impasse is Graham has always understood his role in this game. When he went undrafted out of Florida, he did not sit on the sideline pouting. He did not cry about the injustice.
Graham figured out the key to his survival was adapting and adjusting. He learned to play special teams. He learned how to be an effective blocker. He swallowed his pride enough to play in the shadows of others.
I suppose he figures his time has come and, in a way, it has. But he also has to be careful not to overplay his hand. If the Keenan McCardell, Jake Plummer and Chris Simms situations have taught us anything, it is that the Bucs are not afraid to play hardball when it comes to their assets.
By and large, contract disputes are easily classified. You have your greedy players, or you have your cheap owners, and it isn't terribly hard to see which one is rushing toward asinine. The troubling part of this particular disagreement is that neither side is blatantly at fault.
It really is difficult to criticize Graham for seeking the payday that has eluded him the past five years. But it is also difficult to imagine he has the leverage to pull off this gambit.
I wonder if Graham recalls the story of Errict Rhett.
He was a star at the University of Florida, just like Graham. He came to Tampa Bay and found himself woefully underpaid as the team's starting tailback, just like Graham. Agent Drew Rosenhaus suggested a renegotiation, just as he has done for Graham.
The Bucs offered to tear up Rhett's contract and pay him millions, but he wasn't satisfied. He skipped some voluntary offseason workouts, and then skipped training camp, too. The Bucs pulled their offer off the table and fined Rhett for every day of work he missed.
Seven games into the season, Rhett finally figured out his career was at risk and crawled back to the locker room. Between lost wages and the contract he never signed, Rhett lost at least $2-million and probably far more.
He also fell out of favor in Tampa Bay and was reduced to a backup role the next season.
A rookie named Warrick Dunn.
John Romano can be reached at email@example.com.