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Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Raheem Morris and general manager Mark Dominik interviewed several candidates for the offensive coordinator position in January before opting to hire Boston College head coach Jeff Jagodzinski.
There were a lot of things Morris and Dominik liked about Jagodzinski, including his desire to coach physical football teams.
However, perhaps one of the biggest points that sold Morris and Dominik on Jagodzinski was his offensive scheme, which is run oriented in nature.
A quick look at Tampa Bay's track record in terms of running the football over the past 13 years helps explain Morris and Dominik's interest in Jagodzinski.
The Bucs haven't had a 1,000-yard rusher since Cadillac Williams accomplished that feat as a rookie in 2005. There was a reason why the Bucs invested a first-round pick (fifth overall) in Williams in the 2005 NFL Draft.
Over the past 13 seasons, the Bucs have had just three 1,000-yard rushers – Williams (2005) and Warrick Dunn (1998, 2000).
That's not to say the Bucs couldn't run the football at all during that 13-season span. Tampa Bay's offenses oftentimes featured two-back sets, which made it difficult for individual backs to receive the number of carries needed to rush for over 1,000 yards.
But with the exception of the 1998 season when the Bucs ranked fourth in rushing, which was the highest the franchise has ever ranked in that category, Tampa Bay has not been considered a dominant running team in quite some time.
The Bucs have had a top-10 ranked ground game just twice in the last 13 seasons (1998, 2000). Six of those seasons saw Tampa Bay finish ranked in the bottom half of the league in that category.
Jagodzinski is in the process of implementing a zone-blocking scheme that will call for the Buccaneers to run the football early and often.
The two backs that will be counted on to carry the load via the running game this season are Earnest Graham and Derrick Ward.
Graham and Ward are 29 and 28, respectively, and have 10 seasons of experience between them. However, they have produced just one 1,000-yard rushing season between them. Ward accomplished that feat as a New York Giant in 2008.
If given the opportunity to carry the load on a full-time basis, one of both players probably could have rushed for more than 1,000 yards. After all, Graham rushed for 898 yards after replacing the injured Williams and Michael Pittman in 2007, and he and Dunn were each on pace to rush for 1,000 yards at one point during the 2008 season before injuries took their toll on the Bucs offense.
The 5-foot-11, 228-pound Ward rushed for 1,627 yards (5.2 avg.) and five touchdowns over the past two seasons while working behind featured RB Brandon Jacobs.
Graham (5-9, 225) has rushed for 1,461 yards (4.1 avg.) and 14 touchdowns over the past two seasons. Last year was his first opportunity to carry the load as a full-time running back, and Graham fared well, rushing for 563 yards (4.3 avg.) and four touchdowns before sustaining a season-ending ankle injury in November.
The Bucs never had a 100-yard rusher after Week 6 of the 2008 regular season, and Graham's absence had a lot to do with that.
The good news for the Bucs is Graham has completely recovered from the ankle injury that sidelined him last season.
"It's ready to go," Graham said of his ankle. "It doesn't even feel like it was hurt before. I'm not hesitant at all. I'm making all the cuts possible. This is actually the best I've felt from a health standpoint since '07."
Graham's injury wasn't the only one that hindered Tampa Bay's running game. The Bucs also had a rash of injuries at fullback, which made it difficult for Warrick Dunn to carry the load in place of Graham.
The Bucs could have used Graham down the stretch. Tampa Bay started the season 9-3, but lost four straight games in December to finish 9-7 and out of the playoffs.
"There was no chance I could go last year," said Graham. "I had to wrap that thing up. I definitely give credit to [Bucs team trainer] Todd Toriscelli because he recommended I put a hard cast on it, and I think that really helped the healing process."
The Bucs released Dunn, 34, during the offseason, and he has yet to sign with another team. With Graham coming off an ankle injury and Williams rehabbing from his second torn patellar tendon injury in as many seasons, Tampa Bay made a strong push for Ward, who signed as a free agent.
Some professional athletes prefer to have the ball in their hands as much as possible, but Graham's unselfish mentality allowed him to welcome Ward with open arms.
"We definitely needed him, and I welcomed it," Graham said of Ward. "I was doing the majority of touches near the goal line and short-yardage yards, so I definitely welcome somebody to come in and help us. The big thing is to not let up. We have enough running backs right now where we can be strong through the entire season."
History shows that most teams' running games immediately improve when zone blocking schemes are implemented. Graham feels that's exactly what will happen in Tampa Bay, where the Bucs finished the 2008 season ranked 15th in terms of running the football.
"I love the playbook," said Graham. "I am a big fan of the playbook, especially the running game. It's just very natural in terms of being a running back. It allows you to use your instincts."
Graham, who originally entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent in 2003, has fought an uphill battle in the NFL, so learning a new playbook pales in comparison to some of the challenges he's faced as an NFL player, including having to learn a system as complex as the one former head coach Jon Gruden called from 2002-08.
"It's definitely simpler," Graham said of Jagodzinski's playbook. "You could come in a couple of days and be able to play in a game and even learn most of the playbook. You can learn this offense quickly. I think that's good with the way this game is."
Graham isn't a master of Jagodzinski's playbook yet since the offensive coordinator still is feeding the players new plays to learn and execute on the practice field.
One of Gruden's more popular formations was the "Rocket Backfield," which called for two running backs to line up in the I-formation on the same offensive play. Will Jagodzinski have similar formations and plays designed for the duo of Graham and Ward?
"We haven't really gotten to that yet," said Graham. "We're early in the process. I'm sure we'll get to that at some point. We also have Clifton [Smith], and I'm sure we're going to be trying to find ways to get him on the field, too."
Even if Jagodzinski doesn't have plays designed for two running backs to be on the field for one particular play, there is a chance Graham and Ward will see action together in 2009.
The Bucs placed fullback Byron Storer on injured reserve earlier this week after he suffered a setback in his attempt to recover from an ACL injury.
Tampa Bay has two fullbacks – B.J. Askew and Jameel Cook – on its offseason roster, but Askew hasn't been able to make it through a full season healthy since he joined the Bucs in 2007. In fact, he's missed nine games over the past two seasons.
Graham, who was rewarded with a new three-year, $10.5 million contract during the 2008 offseason, volunteered to play fullback for the Bucs when Askew and Storer were lost to injuries last year. He did an admirable job, helping Dunn rush for 115 yards vs. the Carolina Panthers in Week 6.
There's a chance the Bucs will ask Graham to play some fullback again in 2009, and if that happens he won't hesitate to help his team.
"I would expect that ," said Graham. "I automatically expect to be a team player, whether it's special teams, fullback or halfback. It's definitely something I can do and may have to do at some point, which I'm totally okay with."