The importance of keeping Earnest

With Earnest Graham not signed through 2011, what does it mean for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers now and in the future?'s Matthew Postins explores the issue and makes three key points about why extending Graham's deal was one of the offseason's most important moves.

It took a while, but the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Earnest Graham finally got together on a contract extension that could pay Graham up to $11 million through the 2011 season.

The deal, revealed Monday, means the Bucs will enter training camp with a full complement of healthy running backs, plus Carnell Williams, who is still rehabbing his right knee.

So what does Graham's new deal mean for the Buccaneers? From this seat, three things stand out:

1. No Cadillac, no problem. By now you're heard the reports that Williams may start the season on the physically unable to perform list. Doing so would not be a criticism of Williams' rehab, which by all accounts is going well. In fact, I've written in most of my pieces this offseason that starting Williams on PUP was a strong possibility, and it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out why. By training camp Williams will be 10 months into a rehab process for an injury that takes anywhere from nine months to a year. And that's just to get his right knee healthy. That doesn't take into account getting Williams into football shape, which seems near impossible for him to do by September. By putting Williams on PUP, the Bucs ensure that he'll have a full year to rehab the injury before hitting the field, since Williams won't be eligible to come off the PUP until after Week 6 of the season.

The Bucs must ensure Williams' long-term future, given how much they have invested in him. Being cautious is the way to go, and since Graham's contract status is now assured, the Bucs can be confident in their situation at tailback, whether Williams plays in 2008 or not.

2. No training camp drama. While I never really thought that Graham would hold out of training camp, that's the modus operandi of his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, when his clients don't get what they want. By getting the deal done now, the Bucs have ensured that at least one of their vets seeking an extension (Jeff Garcia) will be in Orlando (in fact, count Garcia in too, whether he gets a new deal or not).

Now the only drama will be how head coach Jon Gruden will divide the carries between Graham, Warrick Dunn and Michael Bennett. And that's all the drama Gruden needs.

3. The future of the Bucs running game. Last year I wrote an article about how Gruden uses running backs in his offense as a head coach, and one thing stood out. Since his days in Oakland, either by design or by necessity, Gruden has gravitated toward using two or more backs in a tandem. In his head-coaching career, Gruden has coached just two 1,000-yard rushers — Tyrone Wheatley (Oakland, 2000, 1,046) and Williams (Tampa Bay, 2005, 1,178). Most of the time, Gruden chooses to divide the bulk of his carries and yards between two or three backs.

That makes the Bucs' intentions clear when it comes to Graham. They view him as more than just insurance in case Williams is never the same. They envision him — they hope — as part of a tandem that would feature Graham and Williams shouldering the load in 2009 and beyond. During his offense's best years in Oakland and Tampa Bay, a backfield tandem helped move the chains and, more often than not, the team to a winning record.

That's what Graham — and a healthy Williams — would represent in the coming years. And that's why the Bucs needed to extend Graham's deal on Monday.

Matthew Postins covers the Buccaneers for and the Charlotte Sun in Port Charlotte, Fla.

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