Graham Filling Running Back Role Well
Tampa Bay banged a panic button like a set of bongos after RB Cadillac Williams suffered a season-ending knee injury and backup Michael Pittman severely sprained his ankle. All the Bucs had left was Earnest Graham, a special-teams player who was unproven as a running back. It is why Tampa Bay traded for former Kansas City RB Michael Bennett, who was expected to compete for playing time.

Now the earlier worries about Graham seem to be nothing more than a false alarm. Graham rushed 22 times for 106 yards and one touchdown during Tampa Bay's 27-23 victory against New Orleans.

"He's had 100 yards rushing. A hundred yards receiving. I don't know what Earnest hasn't done great since he's played," Bucs coach Jon Gruden said. "He's an all-purpose back. He gives us a guy we don't ever have to take off the field in any situation. He's just a comfortable football player. He's durable, and knock on wood, I don't think he's turned the ball over yet, and that's a credit to him."

Graham scored on a 25-yard touchdown run in the third quarter, making Sunday the fourth consecutive game in which he has scored. The team record for consecutive games with touchdowns is five, which is shared by Errict Rhett, Reggie Cobb and Gary Anderson. "I've watched him for two years. I haven't seen him not finish a run. I'm impressed," RT Jeremy Trueblood said.

With QB Luke McCown making his first start since 2004, Graham believed that establishing a consistent running game would be key for Tampa Bay to pull off a road victory . The Bucs rushed for 172 yards. Meanwhile, Reggie Bush was limited to 64 yards on 13 carries, and New Orleans compiled 84 yards on the ground. "We had total confidence in Luke, but I knew I needed to be big, as far as touchdowns," Graham said. "I'm glad he looked for me there at the end of the game. I just wanted to be big, as far as protections, but he played one hell of a game."

Garcia and Gruden blast ESPN
Jeff Garcia and Gruden blasted ESPN analyst Chris Mortensen after the victory for reporting before Sunday's broadcast the quarterback had suffered a hairline fracture. Garcia injured his back during last Sunday's victory against Washington and missed practice all week. Throughout the week, Garcia described his injury as a sore back, and he took exception to Mortensen's report.

"With four games left, I didn't want to have a setback today. Had it been a do-or-die situation, like a playoff game, I felt I could have fought through it. But I still feel stiff," Garcia said. "What does Chris Mortensen know? I'm ready to go. I don't have a fracture."

Gruden was not as kind. "There are a lot of reports out there. I don't have time for all the reports. I don't have any knowledge of structural damage at all. I just wish some of these reports were verified. Who reported it?" Gruden said. "He Chris Mortensen doesn't have an ... idea what he's talking about. I don't understand why he would say that unless he got the X-rays himself."

Big easy for Joey
If Joey Galloway could play every game against New Orleans, he would be the greatest receiver in NFL history. Galloway had seven receptions for 159 yards in Tampa Bay's victory, the third time he had more than 100 yards in receptions this season (29th of his career), but he is used to having success against the Saints. Since becoming a Buccaneer in 2004, Galloway has scored 10 touchdowns in six games against New Orleans.

"Our idea was to come in and be aggressive," Galloway said. "Luke made some nice throws. We were able to make some big plays in the first half and turn it on in the second half."

Lehr delivers in the clutch
Bucs backup C Matt Lehr spent most of Tampa Bay's game against New Orleans on the sideline, which is nothing unusual considering John Wade is a proven starter. However, when Wade developed a cramp in his leg with two minutes remaining and Tampa Bay facing 4th-and-1 on the New Orleans' 28-yard line, Lehr was thrown into arguably the biggest play of this season.

Lehr's role became more prominent when Gruden decided to go for it instead of attempting a field goal to tie the game at 23. "I just said to myself, 'Let's get the first down'" Lehr said. "That is about all you can do. You practice all week, and you watch the team film like everybody else, so when you get an opportunity, you have to make the most of it."

McCown handed off to Graham, who ran 2 yards off tackle for the first down. Three plays later, TE Jerramy Stevens caught a 4-yard touchdown pass from McCown to seal the victory.

The Tampa Tribune / The St.Petersburg Times December 2007