Barber was one of the top five tailbacks in the league and Brandon Jacobs was afforded all ball-carrying opportunities that didn't go to Barber. Worse yet, Ward was sitting out with a fractured foot he suffered during training camp in 2006, a lingering injury that forced him to miss the Giants' first six regular-season games. The big backup eventually played in eight games and was the team's primary kickoff returner, but he finished the season on Injured Reserve, didn't carry the ball once and didn't catch a single pass out of the backfield.
Ward wasn't much more optimistic once the calendar changed to 2007, as the 6-4, 260-pound Jacobs was essentially assured the first crack at becoming Barber's replacement and the Giants traded for Reuben Droughns, twice a 1,200-yard rusher before faltering in Cleveland last season. So Ward waited and worried, still uncertain if the bright New York metropolitan area spotlight would ever turn toward him.
Once it did, Ward was prepared, displaying in Irving, Texas exactly what Giants coaches and players have understood all along about this quiet, mild-mannered back. Perhaps now, they think, Jacobs might not need to be "Thunder & Lightning" all rolled into one enormous mass of a tailback. Once Jacobs returns to the field following rehabilitation of his sprained knee ligament, in less than a month according to him, Tom Coughlin could be presented with a welcomed problem, a crowded offensive backfield full of options.
"(I like Ward's) quickness, his speed, the fact that he is 230 pounds," Coughlin said. "People don't, a lot of times, even recognize that fact. He has played enough now to be a guy that has a little savvy about the spot. He showed (against Dallas) that he could make a play when he has to run through some arms to get to the position where he needs to get to, whether it be the touchdown run or the nice cutback on the toss.
"He has caught the ball for us, he has been instinctive, and he has matured in the area of pass protection. He has been coming along and certainly proved in training camp that he deserves the opportunity and he certainly will get some more."
The 5-11, 230-pound Ward's vision is perhaps his greatest asset. That trait was obvious against the Cowboys when center Shaun O'Hara sealed off reserve defensive end Jay Ratliff around right end, creating just enough room at the line of scrimmage for Ward to run for 44 yards down the middle of the field. The highlight-reel run was almost four times as long as Ward's previous career high (12 yards) and encouraged Giants fans and players alike.
"I've got all the confidence in Derrick, that he can come out and do this," Jacobs said. "D-Ward's a great back. He knows the system, he knows everything he has to do, so I'm not worried about that, not one bit. And I'm not worried about me coming back. I'll be back soon enough."
Coming back between games might be Ward's greatest challenge as he goes from basically being unblemished to battered and bruised on Sundays, now that he could carry the ball 20 or more times per game. He hasn't handled this type of workload since 2003, the season he ran 263 times for 2,061 yards while establishing an NAIA single-season rushing record as a senior at Ottawa (Kan.) University. The Moreno Valley, Calif., native intends to schedule several massage and acupuncture treatments per week to ensure freshness for Sundays, yet he is eager, too, to show he can become a featured back at football's elite level.
"We get paid a lot of money to do what we do, so I prepare every day like I'm going to be that guy," Ward said. "I work hard every day, I don't give up, I don't take plays off and I'm going to do whatever it takes to help my teammates and I win."
Ward, who transferred to Ottawa from Fresno State University before the Jets selected him in the seventh round of the 2004 NFL Draft, shouldn't shoulder the burden of Jacobs' absence alone, though. Droughns, who was moved to fullback because the team had difficulty finding a suitable substitute for injured Jim Finn, figures to be utilized more now as well. The 5-11, 220-pound Droughns is less than two seasons removed from gaining 1,232 yards, so he also feels ready to compensate for Jacobs' injury.
"I'm not sure if they really know yet," Droughns said of the Giants' Jacobs-less tailback rotation. "I'm not sure yet. I've just been told, you know, ‘Keep your head in the (playbook).' I'm still learning both positions as well, and right now I'm just going to go with the flow and see how everything turns out."
Even with Ward and Droughns available, the Giants have yet another viable alternative at tailback – rookie Ahmad Bradshaw. Like Ward was three years ago, Bradshaw was taken in the seventh round by the Giants in April. Also like Ward, the former Marshall University star seems to have more ability than his draft position indicates.
"There's a lot of injuries going on and I'm just trying to work hard each day to get better and learn different plays and pass protections," Bradshaw said, "just to get ready and get prepared for the game, just in case there's a chance of me being in there with the (starters)."
Bradshaw was arrested twice during his college career, but he also rushed for 1,523 yards and 19 touchdowns during his junior season in 2006. At 5-9, 198, he is more Barber's size than the stature of the three other options at tailback. But the team's primary kick returner is also excited about the possibility of contributing more on offense than he anticipated in his first NFL season.
"If opportunities come," he said, "I'll rise to the occasion."
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