Since the Buccaneers cleaned house back in early January, the football pundits have claimed that they will be one of the worst teams in football in 2009.
Foxsports.com went so far as to mention the Buccaneers as one of three teams with the potential to go winless this season.
While I do not disagree that this season will bring more than its share of struggles, I do not think the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will be as terrible this season as has been predicted; the reason for that will be a very strong running game.
Coach Raheem Morris has already said that the Buccaneers will be much more physical than teams from prior seasons, with a heavy emphasis on the running game and play action passes.
The running game will be especially important considering the uncertainty surrounding the quarterback position, as well as the change in philosophy on defense.
At first glance, the Buccaneers' running game doesn’t appear to be anything special, seeing as how the team ranked in the middle of the pack last year in all the major team rushing statistics, but those numbers are very misleading.
Due to injuries over the course of the season, the team was stretched very thin at the fullback position—so thin, in fact, that top running back Earnest Graham volunteered to play fullback at several points during the season.
All the extra hits that Graham took while filling in at fullback eventually took their toll, and thus Graham was only able to appear in 10 games last year.
In addition to Graham’s injury, Carnell "Cadillac" Williams also missed a large portion of the season recovering from a torn ACL injury suffered during the 2007 season.
Warrick Dunn would lead the team last year with 786 yards rushing with a modest 4.23 YPC and two touchdowns. Those numbers don’t seem all that amazing, but when you consider Dunn was viewed as a third down back entering the 2008 season, those numbers are much better then they initially appear.
This article isn’t about looking at the past. Rather, its focus is on the future, and the future looks bright for the Buccaneers' running game this year.
So who are the key players that will prove vital to the success of the running game?
Let’s start up front with the offensive line. The Buccaneers will be bringing back an offensive line that, with the exception of Jeremy Zuttah, started every game last season.
2008 big ticket free agent acquisition Jeff Faine returns at center to anchor this emerging group. He will be joined by Pro Bowl right guard Davin Joseph, who continues to improve each season. Also joining them up front will be tackles Jeremy Trueblood and Donald Penn and Zuttah at left guard.
This group really began rounding into form around midseason last year, when Zuttah began seeing more playing time. Bringing back the entire group certainly bodes well for the Buccaneers' chances in 2009.
Now, let’s focus on the running backs.
Earnest Graham returns as starter "1-A." He has proven himself to be a legitimate running back since saving the Buccaneers' season back in 2007. Since that time, he has scored 14 touchdowns and compiled over 1,400 yards rushing in just over a season's workload.
One problem with Graham is that with his bruising style of running, he is more susceptible to injuries, and thus his durability is a concern.
Enter Derrick Ward, or starter "1-B."
Ward was the Buccaneers' big free agent signing this past offseason. Coming off a career season last year with the New York Giants, Ward amassed 1,025 yards rushing with an impressive 5.6 YPC to go along with two touchdowns.
What also makes Ward appealing is his pass-catching ability, as he caught 41 balls last year for just under 400 yards and two touchdowns. Ward will provide the perfect complement to Graham and should also enable Graham from taking too many extra hits.
There is one more player in the Buccaneers' rushing attack this year. Cadillac Williams is the forgotten man entering this season due to all the injuries he has dealt with over his career, but I see him as a wild card this season. If he is able to stay healthy (a huge if) and regain his 2005 form, then he adds an extra dimension to the Buccaneers' offense.
If his injuries continue to linger, his time in Tampa will eventually run its course.
Many people see the Buccaneers as a three or four-win team this year, and with this tough schedule it is easy to see why. However, I think that if the running game lives up to expectations this year, this could very well be a team that wins seven or eight games and really turns some heads this season.