Trade for running back likely after Pittman's injury

Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden joked Monday that he thinks he has the phone number for Hall of Fame running back Barry Sanders. But the situation at tailback is hardly a laughing matter for the Bucs, with the loss of Michael Pittman to an ankle injury suffered during the team's loss at Indianapolis on Sunday afternoon.

Pittman will miss 6-8 weeks, Gruden acknowledged, and his absence will likely force the Bucs to add a veteran tailback either through free agency or in a trade.

Fourth-year veteran back Earnest Graham, a former undrafted college free agent form the University of Florida, now becomes the starter. The backup will be rookie Kenneth Darby, who was elevated from the practice squad last week.

A 10th-year veteran, Pittman suffered the injury in the fourth quarter at the end of a four-yard run. Tampa Bay officials characterized the injury as a severe sprain, Pittman was undergoing further tests on Monday and the suspicion is that he suffered a cracked fibula.

Tampa Bay lost starting tailback Carnell "Cadillac" Williams to a ruptured patella tendon last week. He has already undergone surgery, been placed on injured reserve, and now faces a lengthy rehabilitation period that could extend into next summer.

"It's a tough blow for us," said Gruden. "We've lost Mike Alstott, now Mike Pittman and Carnell Williams, the three guys who were obviously the go-to ball-handlers the last couple years around here."

Bucs officials were already exploring trade options last week and almost certainly will ramp up those efforts now. Tampa Bay has inquired about Minnesota backup tailback Mewelde Moore, a fourth-year veteran who is No. 3 on the Vikings' depth chart, and offered a sixth-round pick for him. The Vikings, however, are seeking a first-day selection.

Another possibility might be LaBrandon Toefield of Jacksonville, a talented backup who has drawn trade interest in the past from other teams.

The problem for Bucs general manager Bruce Allen now is that he is hardly operating from a position of strength, and other teams will use that as leverage in trade talks. But at 3-2, even coming off the lopsided loss to the Colts, the Bucs are tied for first place in the NFC South, aand with the New Orleans Saints still winless, the division is wide open.

"I think we're going to go for it," Gruden said of the possibility of consummating a trade. "Going for it, though, you still have to have somebody that's a willing partner. Sometimes that's easier said than done."

Among the free agent tailbacks still available, the Bucs phoned the agent for Corey Dillon last week, but the veteran rebuffed those advances.

For now, the Bucs will go with Graham and Darby, and hit the telephone as they seek to add at least one veteran reinforcement. Tampa Bay will not immediately place Pittman on injured reserve, hoping he might be able to return late in the season.

"We'd like to have him back, to be perfectly honest," Gruden said during his Monday news conference. "That's my gut at this point. Until we get the final medical analysis, we can't really comment, but at this point in time we'd like to keep him around here because he's a guy we desperately need. Hopefully he can return."

Graham has rushed for 147 yards and three touchdowns on 36 carries this season. For his career, he has logged only 88 rushes for 362 yards and three scores.

Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.