Earnest Graham thinks back to the travails of his 2007 season, and the memories are not fond. Injuries to fellow running backs Cadillac Williams and Michael Pittman left him standing — barely — alone in the backfield with a throbbing and mangled ankle. "I shot that thing up (with painkillers) and played the whole season like that," the Buccaneers running back recalled this week. "That's part of the game, persevering for your team. "But now it's probably not a necessity anymore." Depth is an issue in certain areas of the roster. But it is not at running back, where the Bucs have not only depth, but quality. But with that wealth of talent comes a set of challenges, chiefly how to utilize four legitimate threats at one position.
The Bucs envision using Graham, who rushed a career-high 222 times during that grueling 2007 season, Williams, Derrick Ward and Clifton Smith in some capacity. Perhaps none will get an ideal number of carries. And their yardage likely won't rival those of featured backs.
But the Bucs, whose 114.8 rushing yards per game last season ranked 18th in the league, believe they can have one of the league's most productive running games with a cumulative effort from a diverse rotation of backs.
"We're all different runners," Williams said. "I'm a cutter, slasher, make-you-miss type of guy. Earnest would be the bowling ball, the grinder. He's a guy who if you need just 1 yard, he's that guy who can definitely provide that punch.
"Derrick is real smooth. He runs real fluidly, has nice vision and has really good speed. He can really get it done. Clifton is the wild card. Coach (Jon) Gruden would call him the joker."
The thinking is each back will establish himself as a good fit for certain situations. But for the most part, there will be no formula. Gut feeling will determine the rotation on some days. Other days, it will be up to the players themselves.
"Sometimes, you get a running back that gets into the game and gets hot," coach Raheem Morris said. "If you put Earnest Graham out there and he starts rolling, you keep him out there and let him roll.
"I'm not going to set an appointment on how I want them to play."
The backs' willingness to adapt has made things easier on their coaches. They are as different off the field as they are on it, but they have formed a bond that goes beyond the walls of the running backs meeting room.
"We're real close-knit," Ward said. "We're always joking around and laughing. But trust me, we know when to be serious and get our work done."
Said Graham: "It always has been that way. Running backs are workers. We tend to be guys that grind and really get behind each other. We all blend real well. We even hang out with each other."
Maybe that's because each has had to prove himself.
Graham, 29, and Smith, 24, were undrafted. Ward, 28, lasted until the seventh round in 2004. Williams, 27, was the fifth overall pick in 2005 but has endured as much hardship as any player with a pair of career-threatening knee injuries.
"These are guys who have worked their tails off to get where they are," general manager Mark Dominik said. "They all understand what hard work is about."
Said Morris: "You're talking about guys who have dug themselves out of being the 53rd man on the roster. Who is Earnest Graham? What round did Derrick Ward get drafted in? Exactly."
Williams said the depth reminds him of his backfield at Auburn, which included the Dolphins' Ronnie Brown, the Giants' Brandon Jacobs, and Tre Smith, who had a brief stint in the NFL.
In the NFL, Williams and Ward have produced 1,000-yard seasons. Last season as a rookie, Clifton Smith played in the Pro Bowl as a kick returner. And Graham, a former Florida standout, just keeps racking up yards, with nearly 2,000 from scrimmage over the past two seasons.
Maybe Graham won't have as many this season, but he probably won't have to play with a swollen ankle the size of Montana, either.
"We have four preseason games and 16 regular-season games and, hopefully, the postseason," he said. "And this is a real physical game."
Stephen F. Holder can be reached at [email protected]