Like any football coach, Doug Marrone likes guys who run very fast. Marrone has a pet expression on the subject, one he picked up from Dick MacPherson, his college coach at Syracuse University:
“Luck follows speed.”
If that’s the case, then T.J. Graham’s luck is bound to change. Graham, the Bills’ second-year wide receiver, is one of the fastest men in the NFL. He was timed in 4.41 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine in 2012, and he has been clocked as low at 4.29.
The Bills are still waiting for Graham’s blazing speed to translate to the field. As a rookie, he had just 31 catches for 322 yards and one touchdown. He had just seven receptions of more than 10 yards. During one stretch, Graham went four games without a single catch of more than 6 yards.
This year, Graham came to camp with a new-found confidence and motivation, determined to master his position, fend off the challenge of his rookie competitors, and emerge as a downfield threat in Year Two.
But in Sunday’s opening loss to the Patriots, it was more of the same. Graham was on the field for 60 plays against New England. He had zero catches. The Bills threw to him only once – a deep pass that was badly overthrown by rookie EJ Manuel. Graham also ran a reverse for 5 yards.
That’s hardly what the Bills expected when they drafted Graham with the 69th overall pick two years ago. They were desperate for an outside receiver who could stretch the field, discouraging defenses from cheating toward the line of scrimmage to stop the run.
Every coach loves speed. Using that speed in a creative and useful way is the challenge. It’s not as easy as it sounds.
“Oh, no, because as much as we say it, the other teams know it as well,” Graham said Wednesday afternoon. “They set up defenses to try and stop us and it makes it tougher for us. But we’re good enough to make the adjustments and make the play.”
They’re expected to make big plays. Manuel is a terrific athlete with a big throwing arm. When the Bills drafted two wideouts, Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin, to go with Stevie Johnson and Graham, people envisioned a dynamic passing game that attacked downfield with regularity.
The offense was far more pedestrian in the opener. It was Manuel’s first game, of course, and the Pats played mostly Cover 2. So the Bills settled for a lot of conservative short throws.
That’s not the offensive personality the Bills had in mind when they added all that speed at the draft. On Wednesday, I asked Manuel if he wanted to open up the offense and stretch the field a little more.
“Yes, sir,” he said. Manuel explained that the game plan was a little basic against the Patriots. He wants Graham to get more touches in the offense. Any quarterback wants to keep his skill players happy.
“I expect him to get involved a lot more this week,” Manuel said.
Graham brightened at the news. “Anytime your quarterback says he’s going to try to get the ball to the receivers more, that’s a good thing,” he said. “It’s a chance for us to step up. He’s calling us out, saying ‘Be prepared.’ ”
During training camp, receivers coach Ike Hilliard said Graham needed to master some of the technical aspects of playing wide receiver in the NFL.
Graham said he was motivated by the arrival of young new rivals. Graham said he and Goodwin, another elite sprinter, have become good friends. Now that Goodwin is out with a broken hand suffered in the opener, it’s even more imperative for Graham to emerge as the No. 1 deep threat.
“Well, we have our roles on the team, Graham said. “Mine is open the field up. Speed guy. I’ve got to play fast. I can’t be running slow on the field. We all have to be dynamic in our different way, and we have to exploit those strengths.”
Marrone was diplomatic about his wideouts. He danced around the question of Graham’s production. He said he doesn’t think in terms of individuals. Rather, he judges the production of his wide receivers as a group.
Still, Marrone needs Graham to produce, especially with Goodwin sidelined. Receivers tend to mature slowly, but the Bills are moving fast. Luck follows speed, right? They’re putting their future in the hands of a rookie quarterback. The No. 2 receiver is a rookie, Woods.
There can be only so much patience for a second-year receiver. If Graham doesn’t produce, it’s only a matter of time before Marcus Easley or Chris Hogan challenges him for playing time.
Graham is 23. He’s a bright, engaging guy. Bills fans are eager for this offense to hit its stride. Graham laughed when someone asked if he’s impatient, too.
“I’m patient as I can be,” Graham said. “I want to score touchdowns. I want to catch balls. That’s every day. There’s satisfaction in practice, but there’s nothing like the game. You always want to do your best and show what you can do on Sundays.
“So patiently, I’m waiting.”