Graham Proves He Is A Back For All Months
We know Earnest Graham as Mr. August, the running back who piles up yards in exhibition games and then all but disappears when the big boys start to play. His teammates know another guy, though, someone who works hard and doesn't complain about not getting the ball or doing the dirty work on special teams.
'You always hear Mr. August and all that, but he's Mr. Everything,' Bucs linebacker Barrett Ruud said.
'He's a standup guy,' wide receiver Ike Hilliard added. 'He just goes out and does it on a daily basis.'
Now in his fourth season with the Bucs, Graham just smiles when you ask him about such things.
'I never thought of anything I was doing as insignificant,' he said. 'I was blessed to be here playing football, whether it was special teams or whatever. I never felt like what I was doing was less than anyone else.'
Well, time stood still Sunday for Mr. August.
On the first day of autumn in the steam bath that was Raymond James Stadium, Mr. August knocked out the St. Louis Rams. What was this, Turn Back The Clock day? He carried eight times for 75 yards - all in the fourth quarter - and the first two touchdowns of his pro career. He and running back Michael Pittman helped the Bucs break open a tight game and coast to a 24-3 victory.
And that's not all.
'In case you didn't notice, after he scored the touchdowns, he ran down and covered the kicks on the next play,' Ruud said.
Graham has been an easy guy to overlook since he joined the Bucs as an undrafted free agent out of the University of Florida. He's not very big - only 5-foot-9 - and he doesn't talk much, so sometimes you forget he's even there. He had carried only 52 times in his first three full seasons, but he stuck around because he doesn't complain and he is willing to do anything required of him. 'You have to wait, man,' he said. 'You have to grind.'
That might sum up the approach the Bucs took in this game, too.
They didn't even score until the final seconds of the first half, when Matt Bryant hit a 27-yard field goal just as a timely monsoon put Ray-Jay in its crosshairs. By the end of three quarters, the Bucs had rushed for only 81 yards. When the Rams closed to 10-3 with 11:36 to play, the thought occurred that the local lads might be spitting up a chance to close out the win.
The Rams' field goal was set up by a fumble from Cadillac Williams, and therein lies the tale. That was on the first play of the fourth quarter. Caddy, who had taken a shot to his tender ribs earlier, left the game - coach's decision - and did not return.
Also coach's decision. 'Truth be told, I was frustrated at coming out,' Williams said. 'I'm a competitor and I want to play, so I was frustrated. But at the same time, I'm glad for Earnest Graham and Michael Pittman.'
Graham and Pittman combined to produce 101 yards and the two touchdowns in the fourth quarter. Graham ran through holes and over Rams.
'The guy always falls forward,' quarterback Jeff Garcia said. 'He never takes a loss.'
Just ask St. Louis safety Corey Chavous, who was planted by Graham on one of the TDs, running through and over him at around the 5 on the way to the end zone.
It was the kind of run where you almost expected to hear the ol' A-Train whistle sound throughout Ray-Jay.
'Obviously, now we have to put our minds together and figure out how to get Earnest more involved, because he's clearly deserving of the football,' Bucs coach Jon Gruden said. 'That's a good problem to have.'
The questions were flying at Graham as we piled around his locker afterward. We talked a lot about the whole Mr. August thing and the importance of being patient. It's all good stuff. But then Graham said something revealing. Somebody had asked him about running over Chavous.
'That wasn't even my favorite play of the night. My favorite play was on the punt return,' he said. 'I got a chance to crack-back on one of the Rams.'
That was on a 35-yard punt return by Mark Jones, also in the fourth quarter. It set up Graham's second touchdown.
'Honestly, I feel like that. I'm playing football, man,' he said. 'When I was playing on special teams, I was playing football. When I was called on to run the ball, it's still football.'
Next week, Graham might get the ball 15 times at Carolina, in what suddenly looms as a huge early-season game. Or maybe Caddy rediscovers his stride and it's back to the special teams. Either way, he says it's good as long as the games keep turning out like they did Sunday.
Maybe that attitude helps them turn out that way.
No matter what, though, we learned something important Sunday. Earnest Graham is not only a one-month wonder.
Corey Chavous, by the way, can confirm that.
Joe Henderson, The Tampa Tribune 24 September 2007