TAMPA — Bucs running back Derrick Ward got stuck in the mud Saturday night at Miami and now might be losing traction with the coaching staff.
Ward, who was held to 20 yards on 12 carries (1.7-yard average) and fumbled twice, losing one, blamed his poor performance on the soggy conditions at Sun Life Stadium.
When Ward played in the second quarter, the Bucs were backed up on the baseball infield. And he played behind the second-team line.
But those conditions did not prevent Bucs running back Kareem Huggins from rushing for 55 yards on eight carries.
Ward was visibly upset during the game and later apologized for his behavior, coach Raheem Morris said Monday.
"I was disappointed in his body language," Morris said of Ward. "That's the mental demons you've got to fight as a player. Those are the things you've got to be ready to deal with. You've got to have a mentally tough attitude. I've got to be a mentally tough coach. I didn't have time to go cry about the fumbles. It was my job to try to stop them and get the ball back for our offense and give them another opportunity.
"As a man, Derrick was disappointed in himself. He came to me. He came to (general manager) Mark Dominik. He came to his coaching staff. He was disappointed in his body language and his attitude and all those things and subsequently wants to improve that this week. He'll get a chance to."
Ward didn't live up to expectations last season after signing a four-year, $17 million contract as a free agent from the Giants, for whom he had 1,025 yards in 2008. As a backup to Cadillac Williams, Ward gained 409 yards and a touchdown.
He is due to earn $3.25 million this season, a salary that puts his future with the Bucs in jeopardy if he is not at least the No. 2 tailback.
Ward said his performance against the Dolphins was the result of poor playing conditions and promised to bounce back against the Chiefs on Saturday at Raymond James Stadium.
"The field position we were in when I was in was just terrible," Ward said. "The mud was up to my ankles. I'm not going to make any excuses. It was a preseason game. That's what we're playing for, to get better each week and get ready for the season.
"Those weren't football conditions. I mean, c'mon. The infield of a baseball stadium. But you can't make excuses. You've got to play, and you've got to do what you need to do to win. Hopefully, we're here at Raymond James this weekend and we won't have any sand or mud on the field, so that will be good. Hopefully, I'll be able to have a good rushing night."
Morris made it clear Monday that Ward is not guaranteed a spot on the roster.
"He's competing. He's competing for a job. But he's a good football player," Morris said. "He did run for 1,000 yards in this league over with the Giants and was successful at it. He had some good games for us, that Dallas Cowboys game last year, the opener. He had some other good games for us, some other good runs. Just let him go out there and compete. You don't have to stay with anybody. This is the National Football League."
Ward said that despite the competition at running back, he doesn't believe the performance at Miami will hurt him.
"I've been in this league for a while, and I know what it takes to win," he said. "I know what it takes to get back on track. That was just a fluke game. But I guarantee you this weekend, I'll have a great game."
At one point Saturday, Ward left the field visibly upset after a play and talked with quarterback Josh Johnson. Ward denied reports that he told the Bucs sideline he didn't want the football anymore in the game.
"No, no, no. I never said that. I always want the ball," Ward said. "The particular play that we were running was, unfortunately enough, didn't allow me to do what I had to do. It was an inside zone play, and you have to cut on an inside zone. You couldn't cut. I had no footing on that particular play. Never have I ever said I don't want the ball. I want the ball all the time.
"I think we did a good job overall. Huggy showed some flashes, and Cadillac did a good job. We're just getting better each and every week, and we're just trying to right the ship. … I guarantee you will see big things from me this weekend."
Rick Stroud can be reached at email@example.com.