Graham's selfless swap clears way for Bucs

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

TAMPA, Fla. -- Apparently, it is the season to pay tribute to fullbacks in Tampa Bay.

At next week's game with Seattle, the Bucs will hold a ceremony for recently-retired fullback Mike Alstott, perhaps the most popular player in franchise history. After Sunday's victory against Carolina, they rolled out the red (and pewter) carpet for a fullback who didn't even begin the day as a fullback.

"I just want everybody to know that what Earnest Graham did today, although he didn't show up on the stat sheet, makes coaching worthwhile,'' coach Jon Gruden said after the Bucs defeated the Carolina Panthers 27-3. "I want to thank him for that.''

On a day when benched quarterback Jeff Garcia came back as the starter (he's already got the nod for next week), Gruden spent most of his postgame news conference raving about Graham.

"I'd just like to tell our fans what he did today is what this game is all about,'' Gruden said.

Gruden's right. If Tampa Bay fans didn't see what Graham did (and they may not have because the position is anonymous by its nature), they should at least know about it.

Graham was the reason Warrick Dunn rushed for 115 yards on 22 carries. That was 115 yards Graham could have had.

"I feel proud to block for Warrick,'' Graham said.

Try getting any other starting tailback around the league to say those words. You probably wouldn't have much luck. Graham has been Tampa Bay's starting tailback since the middle of last season and had established himself as the team's primary ball carrier.

But he voluntarily gave up carries for bruises when Byron Storer, Tampa Bay's only active fullback, went down with a knee injury early in the game. B.J. Askew, the usual starting fullback, was inactive because of an injury.

Gruden's initial reaction was to turn to the contingency plan the Bucs have in place every week in case they run short of fullbacks. He, and the rest of the offensive coaching staff, began getting tight end Alex Smith ready to go in at fullback.

That's when Graham approached Gruden on the sideline.

"I came to Gruden and said, 'If you need a fullback, I'm your fullback,' '' Graham said.

The Bucs instantly scratched the contingency plan and prevented further complications for their offense. If Smith had to play fullback, reserves Jerramy Stevens and John Gilmore would have had to take on more duties at tight end. With Graham at fullback, all the Bucs had to do was plug in Dunn, a 10,000-yard career rusher.

Dunn, who returned to the Bucs as Graham's backup after six seasons with Atlanta, got 21 of his carries after the first quarter and had six carries for 45 yards in the fourth quarter.

"The guy sacrificed his day to get in there and block and he did a great job,'' Dunn said. "He was reading it the right way, putting hits on guys. I'm speechless a little bit because of what he sacrificed for his football team today. That's one of the most unselfish acts I've seen on a football team in a long time.''

Gruden certainly wasn't speechless after Graham helped the Bucs get to 4-2. The coach even rated the performance ahead of any by Alstott, who was known more as a runner and receiver than a blocker.

"Earnest Graham stepped up so unselfishly and played as good as we've had a fullback play since I've been here,'' Gruden said.

At 5-foot-9 and 225 pounds, Graham doesn't have the prototypical size of a fullback. But, despite his status as a starting tailback, he does have some experience at the position. Before injuries elevated him to a starting job last year, Graham had taken lots of practice reps at fullback (while also working as the third-string tailback and a regular on special teams) in his first three seasons with the Bucs.

On Sunday, Graham looked like a Pro Bowl fullback.

"He didn't just go into the hole today and just curl up,'' Gruden said. "He laid himself into the hole with as much authority as he runs the football with.''

Graham finished with five carries for 11 yards. Although he did score a 1-yard fourth-quarter touchdown, did he miss carrying the ball?

"No, I didn't miss it,'' Graham said. "I feel proud to be able to block for Warrick. It was the most fun I've had in a game, period. I had a blast.''

The arrangement probably was temporary. The Bucs will evaluate the condition of Askew and Storer on Monday. If either is expected to still be out, the Bucs probably will go out and sign a fullback.

But they'll always know they can turn to their starting tailback.

"If I've got to do it, I'll do it,'' Graham said.