Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Mike Williams has only played a season and a third with Earnest Graham, so he can be forgiven if he hasn't yet learned this about his more seasoned teammate: With Graham, no extra motivation is needed.
Williams was mostly joking, of course, when he recounted his efforts to pump Graham up in preparation for the veteran running back's first start at tailback in years. With usual starter LeGarrette Blount out with a knee injury and the Buccaneers in desperate need of a reliable rushing attack to keep the ball away from the New Orleans Saints' powerful offense, Williams knew Graham was going to play a key role in Sunday's game.
It was after Graham answered the bell in spectacular fashion, notching his first 100-yard game since 2008, that Williams claimed some motivational credit.
"I've been telling him all week, 'Come on man, get that old body moving,'" said the young receiver with a laugh. "I've been playing with him and stuff. He got it moving today, it helped a lot. Got the passing game going. With him doing that, it helped us a lot."
Overall, the Buccaneers racked up 420 yards of offense in their 26-20 win, holding their own in a shootout with Drew Brees and the Saints attack (453 total yards). Graham's contributions were invaluable beyond the raw yardage totals – they allowed Tampa Bay to win the time-of-possession battle, 31:27 to 28:33; they put some bite into the play-action game and they salted away the win in yet another successful four-minute drill for the Bucs' offense.
"That was big," said the Bucs other young starting receiver, Arrelious Benn. "We knew Earnest was going to do that. Earnest is a guy that we depend on. We look up to him. He's a leader on and off the field."
Benn should be thanking Graham. It was play-action that helped free him for a career-long 65-yard touchdown in the second quarter. Quarterback Josh Freeman faked a handoff to Graham, successfully pulling a safety up towards the line and out of coverage. Benn ran deep, cutting from left to right across the field, and was wide open when Freeman threw a perfect bomb to him down the right numbers. That gave the Bucs a lead they would never relinquish.
Freeman used the play-action threat to throw for 303 yards, the second-highest total of his career. He also threw two touchdown passes and was not sacked or intercepted. It was the sort of performance the Bucs had begun to grow used to in the second half of Freeman's outstanding 2010 season, but according to the young passer it wasn't even close to the team's potential peak. In fact, Freeman singled out only Graham as having an outstanding game.
"Today we didn't play close to our potential," he said. "You know, we played a good game, a game good enough to win but we left a lot of yards and a lot of points on the field offensively speaking. I mean, our defense played great but we could play better. But we will say that Earnest Graham played a fantastic game. He just did his thing, especially down in that four-minute [offense]. He was reading his blocks, making those cuts, and allowed us to get in our victory formation."
Graham isn't now and never has been a flashy player. His nickname – "Insurance Graham," bequeathed by Head Coach Raheem Morris – speaks more to his versatility and dependability than any legendary speed or Barry Sanders-like moves. Yet he seems to turn in an enormous play or two every time he's called on to carry the load. He has four career runs of 46 or more yards, and his 34-yard jaunt against the Saints on Sunday set up one of Connor Barth's four field goals.
Graham needed only 17 carries to get his 109 yards, averaging 6.4 per tote. Most of his carries started out straight up the middle and turned into seven, eight or 12 yards after he made one hard cut at the first line of defense. His most impressive run might have been a 12-yarder during that clock-killing four-minute drill, when the Saints defense knew he was coming.
"We can't say enough about him," said Morris. "Put him at tight end, he plays tight end, put him on special teams, he plays special teams. He just does anything you ask him to do. He was almost a linebacker the week before. He just does it, he gets it, he loves football."
There is a reason, of course, that we're relying on Graham's teammates and coaches to summarize the importance of his performance against the Saints. The veteran back never really reacts when the team asks him to take on yet another challenge, and he never seeks out praise after he has met that challenge.
Graham didn't feel particularly different after Sunday's game than he did after an eight-reception day in the season opener or an evening spent mostly blocking for Freeman in San Francisco.
"No, I don't focus on anything; I don't feel entitled to anything," he said. "You know, I just count my blessings and I'm happy I play football. I never felt entitled to be the starting running back or to anything. When you feel that way and just handle your work and handle your career, you want to be able to step up and be ready when it's time, because you know you not dealing with sulking over certain things. I'm not like that."
Graham's teammates know exactly what he's like – even the relative newcomers like Williams. And they know he's going to be there when they need him."