TAMPA - Earnest Graham has ageless legs, a super-sized heart, and a willingness to work. Combine all that with the best attitude you'll ever see on an athletic field, and, well, what else would you want?
He isn't the biggest running back in the league and he probably won't win many sprints, but do you care? Of course not, because when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers need him – and they always seem to need him at some point in any given season – he is there.
And when he has a game like he did Sunday against the New Orleans Saints, we are reminded that Graham … let's hand the microphone to Bucs' center Jeff Faine so he can tell it like it is.
"He is what the professional football player should be," Faine said, with special emphasis on should be . "He doesn't say much, comes in and works hard, gets his opportunity, and takes advantage of it. He always has."
He did it again in the Bucs' 26-20 win over New Orleans, gaining 109 yards on 17 carries while stepping in for the injured LeGarrette Blount. Throw in a couple of catches for 22 yards, and you have 131 total yards from a guy who has spent his career being exactly what the Bucs need him to be – whenever they need it.
"Insurance Graham. Can't say enough about him," head coach Raheem Morris said.
"Ask him to play fullback, he plays fullback. Ask him to play tailback, he plays tailback. You put him at tight end, he plays tight end. You ask him to play special teams, he plays special teams. He does anything you ask him to do. He was almost a linebacker the week before. He just does it, he gets it, he loves football."
As we know, he has been the featured back a couple of times but never kept the job for long.
We remember his work in 2007, when he stepped in for an injured Cadillac Williams and gained 898 yards, but soon enough he was back doing the dirty work of blocking and clearing the way for someone else.
Consider this: Graham gained more yards Sunday than he had in any of the last two seasons . He more than doubled his output for this season, too. If you're looking for a reason why this can be, mark down his next statement and put it somewhere for safekeeping.
"I don't feel entitled to anything. I just count my blessings and I'm just happy I play football. I never feel entitled to be a starting running back or anything," he said, when asked how he avoided bitter feelings when he lost featured status in the past.
"When you feel that way it can hinder your work, hinder your career. You have to step up and be ready when it's your time. You can't be sulking over certain things. I've never done that."
Another senior citizen in the locker room, 36-year-old Ronde Barber, grinned as he told of approaching offensive coordinator Greg Olson on the sideline as the afternoon wore on.
"I told Olie, 'Hey, that new guy Graham is pretty good,'" Barber said. "All he does is come to work and prepare for his opportunity. He's invaluable and that showed today."
Are we surprised? We shouldn't be.
"We knew what Earnest Graham was going to bring to the table. We kept blocking like we have been and Earnest Graham made us look good," offensive tackle Donald Penn said.
This was as big as any win the sixth week of the season can be. It leaves the Bucs tied for first with New Orleans in the NFC South and it erased the stench of last week's debacle at San Francisco. The ride to London today for the game with the Chicago Bears will be much more enjoyable.
"It's great to be able to respond when the team is counting on you. We've had some injuries and the attitude around here is 'next man up.' That's what we always say. It was my turn to step in and carry the ball today and the offensive line did such a great job. I was just following the holes and doing what I've been doing for a long time," he said.
"When it comes to football, I don't think a lot. I just take it day by day. When I come to the office, I do what I'm supposed to do and what I'm called on to do. Things take care of itself. When it's time to do what I have to – fullback, special teams, running back, I do it. That's how it has been for me for a long time."
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