Bucs Can't Make Playoff Run If Graham Can't Run
If we didn't know so before, we do now: Earnest Graham is the indispensible man for the Bucs. Well, Graham and kicker Matt Bryant.

Graham went down early in the first quarter Sunday against the Vikings with what was announced as an ankle injury. He didn't play again and the Bucs' offense struggled accordingly, although it produced enough to beat Minnesota 19-13 to push their record to 7-3. Thirteen of those points came from Bryant, who had four field goals and an extra point. Hope you had him active on your fantasy team.

The Bucs deserve some props for overcoming the loss of Graham, for sure, because this game could have easily gotten away from them. If the injury is serious, though we won't know more until we visit the locker room after the game it will tap every bit of Jon Gruden's creativity to keep this playoff run going because the Bucs will basically be out of running backs.

Cadillac Williams isn't ready to play yet, even though he was added to the roster last week (it was a procedural move; the Bucs had to activate him or lose him for the season). The problem was, they released Michael Bennett in the process; he was quickly claimed by San Diego.

They were reduced to trying to cobble together a ground game against the Vikings by giving occasional carries and throwing a lot of short passes to Warrick Dunn, who put out a heroic effort but was banged up himself, and rookie Clifton Smith, who fumbled at Minnesota's 30 to squash a promising scoring threat.

Otherwise, the burden of scoring fell on quarterback Jeff Garcia. He danced around like a smaller version of Warren Sapp on "Dancing With The Stars" as he evaded the pass rush to buy time. The good news is, Garcia looked really healthy for the first time this season.

He needs to stay that way. The defense did its part as well, sacking Minnesota quarterback Gus Frerotte five times and minimizing the damage potential from uber back Adrian Peterson. Let's be honest here though.

While Graham isn't in Peterson's class, he does give the Bucs a legitimate threat out of the backfield. Dunn can't be a 20-25 carry guy any more and Smith is a dandy return man but can't be counted on for more than that. If Graham has a bad wheel, the burden would fall more on Garcia to keep hope alive by jitter-bugging around until someone can get open. It'll be a succession of 5-yard passes and scrambles.

You can (and should) second guess the decision to release Bennett before Cadillac is truly ready, but it's too late to do anything about that now. Bennett wasn't playing, anyway. They could ask Mike Alstott to come out of retirement (JOKING HERE!). And for those of you who just said, "Hey, seriously, that's not a bad idea" consider that Alstott really quit at the urging of doctors.

I don't really expect to get a straight answer on Graham after this game, frankly, unless the news is bad. If they say they just need to evaluate him as the week goes on, that doesn't sound so good. Anything less than a healthy Earnest Graham for the rest of the season is bad news for a team that is on a good run. They need Graham if they want that run to continue.

Joe Henderson, The Tampa Tribune 17 November 2008