TAMPA — Derrick Ward rolled into training camp last week sitting behind the wheel of a slick, new black Lamborghini.
A message? No, he wasn't trying to make the Bucs ditch Cadillac.
That's impossible as Ward discovered last season.
But to be honest, Ward says, when he left the Giants for a four-year, $17 million contract, he was under the impression the Bucs planned for him to be their feature back; especially because their favorite mode of transportation, Cadillac Williams, was still recovering from his second torn patellar tendon in as many years.
"But things happened throughout the course of the offseason," Ward said. "I never knew what a patellar tendon was. I didn't know the significance of it.
"But I knew he had been through a lot of injuries throughout his career. For him to come back off those two injuries, I give him kudos for that."
In 2008, Ward rushed for 1,025 yards and two touchdowns while gaining 5.6 yards per carry. In his debut with the Bucs, a 34-21 home loss to the Cowboys, Ward played as advertised. Splitting time with Williams, he carried 12 times for 62 yards (5.2-yard average) and a touchdown and caught two passes for 21 yards.
But three quarterbacks in eight games, the firing of offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski 10 days before the season opener and a swiss cheese defense conspired to make Ward one of the more unproductive free agent purchases in club history.
The Bucs quickly scrapped the Giants-like 2-2-1 blueprint (two backs get two series each then one gets one) among Ward, Williams and Earnest Graham and went primarily with Williams.
Williams led the team with 823 yards and four touchdowns. He had nearly twice as many carries as Ward (211 to 114), who finished with 409 yards and that lone touchdown. Ward's 3.6-yard average was the second lowest of his career, and he surpassed 60 yards only once after the opener (67 in Week 15).
"You can't have the numbers I had in New York playing from 21 (points) down," Ward said. "We're last in run defense, and teams are running the ball. So I can't get on the field to do the things I did in New York. People last year thought I was a bust. But I just put it to the back of my mind. I know football, and everybody on my team knows football."
Ward is right. In six of their first seven games, the Bucs trailed by 14 or points in the third quarter, forcing them to pass often.
Starting over with a new team at age 28 wasn't easy for Ward, either. He knew only one player: fullback B.J. Askew, who had spent time with the Jets.
Teams have little cliques, and new players — even productive veterans — have to, in essence, start over to earn their way in.
"It's a process. You don't really know anybody. They've had this team for a couple years now, and I was the new guy on the block," Ward said. "I had to get accustomed to the way they ran the organization and the way things were in the locker room.
"It's a young team. I came from a team where you had Michael Strahan and Amani Toomer and Tiki Barber, Plaxico Burress and all those guys. I went from a veteran team to where I'm one of the oldest guys on the team. It was a big deal, but we've had a year under our belt, and I'm excited. I've never been so excited for a season to come."
Talk to Ward, and it's immediately evident he is more relaxed.
"I'm happier," he said.
One reason is the Bucs have scrapped much of the zone blocking scheme and returned to a power game. And coach Raheem Morris has promised to "go with the hot back."
"We're going to formulate an immaculate tandem this year," Ward said.
Still, the Bucs love to ride Cadillac, and Morris admits Williams has "more equity in my emotional bank account."
"I've got to make some deposits," Ward said. "But I've got a little saved up."