The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who began their offseason workout program earlier this week.
Running back Earnest Graham spoke about a number of things concerning himself and the Buccaneers on Wednesday. Graham said that the rehab form his right ankle injury is going well. He hurt his right ankle against the Minnesota Vikings in Week 10 and missed the rest of the season.
"I wouldn't say I'm 100 percent," Graham said. "I'm taking my time to get back to where I was before, but I'll be there."
Graham was asked if anticipates being ready to participate fully in the organized team activities, mini-camps, and training camp.
"Yeah, I definitely will."
Graham gave a ringing endorsement for Bucs quarterback Luke McCown. The Buccaneers re-signed McCown to a two-year contract prior to free agency, and McCown is the frontrunner to be the Buccaneers starting quarterback in 2009. Graham shared his feelings regarding McCown having the chance to start.
"I think letting Luke have a chance is a great decision," Graham said. "I think he should have been playing probably a long time ago. I think that was a move in the right direction. How it will go nobody knows, but I think we are definitely going in the right direction as far as the offense goes.
"With the athlete Luke is, I personally think that with the exception of Michael Vick when he was [in the NFL], and Vince Young, I don't think there is another athlete as good as Luke McCown at the quarterback position, so I think it is going to be pretty interesting."
New running back and teammate Derrick Ward talked about seeing Eli Manning grow from his rookie season to becoming a Super Bowl champion quarterback. Ward talked about the similarities he sees in Manning and McCown.
"I see a lot of similarities, but Luke is a way better athlete then Eli, hands down," said Ward. "It is not about all athletic ability. It is about your smarts. If you can read different coverages, blitzes, and techniques that defensive linemen do. Luke is very attentive in meetings we got on the field for a little bit and went over a couple of plays. He seems very sharp out there, and he is picking up the offense pretty fast. I have all the confidence in the world to run behind him, block for him, and do all the things that I need to do make him more successful."
Graham had a long road to breaking into the starting lineup himself. After three seasons on the bench Graham got an opportunity to play after injuries took out the two running backs ahead of him. The 29-year-old running back thinks that McCown could be a quarterback version of his own rise to effective play when given the opportunity.
"Luke needs to play, like anybody else," Graham said. "To start off with there is nothing he can't do on a football field. There is not a throw he can't make. He is a great athlete and he is a very intelligent guy. He just needs to play. If he doesn't get in he will never get the experience. This is a business that you do need experience."
Broncos quarterback Jay Cutler was a trade target by Tampa Bay at the beginning of the free agent signing period. While that trade fell through, there are still rumors swirling that the Bucs could be a landing spot for Cutler if the Broncos move him. Graham was asked if the Buccaneers need Cutler.
"Not at all. No," said Graham.
New offense coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski is installing his offense with the players and coaches. Graham said he believes that Bucs offense will be more consistent going forward, and he discussed the changes in the Bucs offense overall.
"It probably is not as much volume as it was before," said Graham. "I know running the ball is going to be a little different. We are going to be doing a zone scheme, and I think running the ball is going to be more of a priority. Schemes are schemes, I think it really depends on what we have in the locker room with a mix of new players."
Added Ward: "I think we are going to have more of an emphasis on the run. I don't think they would have brought me in here if they weren't looking to go that way. From what I've seen so far we are going to have a potent offense. We have the right guys in the right positions to make plays with me, Earnest, Cadillac [Williams] coming back, and Clifton [Smith]. We are going to have a nice set of running backs that can provide the offense with the rushing attack that every team needs."
Last season, Graham rushed for 563 yards, averaging 4.3 yards per carry with four touchdowns before missing the final six games with his ankle injury. In 2007, Graham had 898 yards rushing with 10 touchdowns. Jagodzinski spoke highly of Graham in his introductory press conference, and Graham is looking forward to playing in Jagodzinski's scheme.
"I think the way we used to run the ball we had our work cut out for us," Graham said. "I think we ran the ball before there was a lot of traffic to get through, and you had to be able to get through a lot of traffic. This scheme is more of a one-cut deal as far as a running back is concerned. You are using your vision, you have a number of places that you can go with the ball. It allows the offensive linemen to use their natural athletic ability rather than the old school way of going one on one and you have to muscle Kris Jenkins or somebody, and it just doesn't work. I think it allows our linemen, and I think we have a nice group of athletes, to be athletes and use our natural instincts."
"In New York we did run a lot of zone," Ward said. "That is what everybody failed to realize because we had a reputation and emphasis as a power running team. We did a lot of zone scheme, and I'm pretty familiar with a lot of the zone scheme that is here. Like I said it is just a lot different terminology. Once I get the terminology down then it is going to be like second nature for me."
Graham has a new backfield teammate to split carries with in Ward after sharing the load with Warrick Dunn last season, and the Bucs veteran running back believes that Tampa Bay could have a very potent rushing attack in 2009.
"The potential is through the ceiling especially with the way we are talking about running the ball," said Graham. "Everybody likes watching Carolina play and watching those two guys tag-team different teams. We would like to present some of the same problems. I think definitely the guys in Carolina and New York have set the bar of running the ball in the league. We are looking to match that and even do better than that."
Last season Ward rushed for 1,025 yards averaging 5.6 yards per carry with two touchdowns. Ward and former teammate Brandon Jacobs both went over 1,000 yards rushing. Ward and Graham figure to share the carries evenly next season. Graham has no qualms with that proposed workload.
"I love the idea," Graham said. "I went through a season two years ago where I was the only back and got all the carries and never came off the field. It was tough. Last year, of course, playing a power back and then some fullback, it is tough to make it (through a season) in this league playing like that. I don't think you can make it in the league like you could years ago. I am definitely looking forward to it."
Both Graham and Ward are versatile backs that are effective pass receivers out of the backfield. Graham caught 49 passes in 2007. Ward made 41 receptions for 384 yards last season and averaged 9.4 yards per catch. In the new offense Graham said that he and Ward would continue to be used often in the passing attack.
"Definitely, there will be a lot of opportunities for us to catch passes," said Graham. "Both of us are capable."