Signed a week before the season after being cut by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Derrick Ward has emerged as a major surprise for the 4-2 Texans.
The 30-year-old running back has scored a touchdown in three consecutive games, each time on his first carry. The only thing keeping him out of the end zone this Sunday is the Texans' bye week.
Ward's average of 8.3 yards per carry as a backup to Arian Foster would lead the league by a full two yards if he had enough attempts to qualify. He has 17 carries through six games, a number that is sure to go up in a hurry.
"He's talented, so we need to get him on the field more," Texans coach Gary Kubiak said on Tuesday. "Arian will be totally fresh if he's playing. If not, then Derrick will be out there. We were even talking about how good he looked just practicing today.
"Remember when he came in we talked about him losing six or seven pounds? He's down now and is really going to help us down the stretch."
Ward has averaged 4.9 yards per carry in his career, but he averaged only 3.6 in a disappointing 2009 season with the Bucs. After his 33-yard touchdown run in Week 4 at Oakland and 38-yard score in Week 6 against the Chiefs, it's safe to say the burst is back.
On Tuesday, Ward said he hasn't felt this fresh since 2008, his last season with the New York Giants.
"Hopefully, I'll be able to replicate what I did there here," he said.
Ward ran for 1,025 yards (5.6 avg.) and caught 41 passes for 348 yards that season, one year after he helped the Giants win Super Bowl XLII. He then signed a big-money deal with the Bucs as an unrestricted free agent, and that's where things went south.
Instead of being Tampa's lead back, Ward started only one game. He had 409 rushing yards on the season and didn't have a run longer than 28 yards.
"It just wasn't the right fit for me," Ward said. "It wasn't a place where I needed to be at that time, and it kind of made me second-guess myself. But I think the best thing that they ever did for me was to release me and to let me get my bearings back for playing football. I was fortunate enough to sign here and be a part of this great organization that's willing to do whatever it takes to get to that next level."
The 2009 season was hardly the first bump in the road of Ward's football career. Injuries and academic issues forced him to transfer from Fresno State to Ottawa (Kan.) as a senior in college. He responded by setting NAIA single-season records with 2,061 rushing yards, 28 touchdowns and 7.8 yards per carry, then was drafted in the seventh round by the New York Jets in 2004. The Giants signed him off the Jets' practice squad later that year.
"To be able to be where I'm at right now and accomplish all the things I've accomplished, it's very humbling for me to have another chance at being on a great team and on the right path," he said. "I'm just glad to be a part of the puzzle that we're trying to put together to get to the playoffs."
Ward was the "Wind" in the Giants' "Earth, Wind and Fire" running back trio, so it's taken him time to get used to being the oldest back on the roster.
Slowly but surely, he has embraced the role of being a mentor to Foster and Steve Slaton, who are in their second and third seasons, respectively.
"I'm taking it in stride," Ward said. "I remember when I was in my first and second and third year in the league, messing with Tiki Barber and calling him the old guy. He told me, 'One day, you're going to be the old guy,' and that day is today. So now I've got to take the harassment from the two younger little ThunderCats behind me. It's all good."
Foster was asked how often he reminds Ward of his age.
"He reminds himself every time he wakes up and his back hurts," he said.
Playful banter aside, the guidance Ward has lent to Foster has been invaluable.
"It's fun having him here on the team," Foster said. "He's making plays and he's rooting for me and Steve, and me and Steve are rooting for him. It's fun. It's exciting to watch him.
"He's really taken me under his wing, kind of just shown me the ropes of things that were taught to him by guys like Tiki Barber and Curtis Martin. He's been around a lot of good backs and he's put me on the phone with some veterans that I grew up watching. He really tries to take me in and show me that the future's bright if I just stay focused."
At the rate Ward is going, his own future is bright, too. When the Texans met on Monday to review game film of their victory over the Chiefs, Kubiak told Ward in front of the entire team that he needs to get more carries in weeks to come.
"That means the world to me," Ward said. "I'm glad he has the confidence in me to be able to throw me out there. I'm not going to let him down."