Time to release the three-headed monster again?
When the Buccaneers tredged off the Raymond James field on 28th December 2008 following the defeat to the Raiders, that would prove to be Jon Gruden's last game as Bucs' Head Coach, it completed a season where a Buccaneers running back had only been the top rusher in a game in six out of the sixteen games.
With backfield depth of Earnest Graham, Warrick Dunn and a sprinkling of Cadillac Williams, Buccaneers Head Office decided they needed to upgrade their 15th ranked rushing Offense.
Enter one third of the "Earth, Wind and Fire" New York Giants running back trio, Mr Derrick Ward. Signed on the back of a 1,025-yard season for the Giants and to a four year, $17 million contract fans were looking forward to seeing him team up with incumbent backs Earnest Graham and increasingly healthy Cadillac Williams following Warrick Dunn's release.
During the 2009 pre-season things looked positive with all three feature backs putting up decent numbers during their fleeting spells in the four games. Graham recorded 40 yards, Ward 52 yards and Williams 54 yards all off minor amounts of carries, the workload was spread around the "Three Headed Monster" that Raheem Morris and Mark Dominik were hoping for.
Once the season started however it was a slightly different story. As we all know the Buccaneers struggled to establish the type of running that the team desperatly needed with the QB carousel in full flow. You have to take into account the reduction in quality on the offensive line with the mysterious loss of Arron Sears and injuries to Jeff Faine and Donald Penn at different times.
Jeremy Trueblood's repeated personal foul penalites were just another annoyance to fans and management alike. It cannot be ignored either that the Bucs found themselves trailing early in a large number of games and were forced to go to the air in an attempt to get back into games, and very rarely had the oppurtunity to use the running game to kill the clock.
With all of the above "Excuses" taken into account you have to ask some serious questions about why the Monster never really came to pass. Firstly the star back of the last two Buccaneers' seasons, Earnest Graham, saw just 14 carries all season. 14. This man had been a revolation since making the move from pre-season wonder to full time starter.
Part of this is down to Graham putting himself forward to step into the big shoes left by often injured Full Back Bryon Askew. By blocking for others Graham greatly reduced his own chance to shine with the ball in hand. Derrick Ward managed 409 yards off of 109 attempts from from his first season in Florida, not really the sort of numbers anyone had expected from possibly the best free agent coming off the 2008 season.
Finally we have the fairytale story that is Cadillac Williams. Coming back from not one but two potentially career ending knee injuries, Williams rushed for an impressive 823 yards from 211 attempts and four TDs. Williams looked to be back to his best in the latter weeks of the disappointing 2009 season.
So where does that leave the Buccaneers rushing game in 2010? Behind a settled O-line, that may get an upgrade before the season begins? Behind a young, strong, mobile QB to use the passing game to open up the run, and vice-versa?
In my opinion both is true and with a healthy Cadillac, more importantly a healthy Askew blocking for all three backs and Earnest Graham back taking hand offs as he should be, things look positive.
I still think that Derrick Ward has a big part to play in the rushing attack as he offers the breakaway speed that neither hard yards specialist Graham or wriggling runner Williams possess in the same amount as Ward. I think Ward can be the Bucs home run hitter and we could see the type of running game that Baltimore, Carolina and New York's Giants have enjoyed in recent years.
If we are going to use these three supremely talented backs then it needs to be in an impulsive Offense rather than the very scripted plan the Bucs laid out last season. Smash them with Earnest, tire them out chasing Caddy's dancing feet and then let Ward hit a tired set of defenders at break neck speed.
It can work and furthermore I believe it will work. I am predicting that at least one of these three will have a 1,000 yard season, and possibly even two. Lets be honest with no receivers we'll need every yard they can manage!