Every time Earnest Graham hears how he can't beat the stopwatch, he cleans somebody else's clock. The Bucs running back has spent a career hearing himself described as more thunder than lightning. How it takes him an hour and a half to watch 60 Minutes. And sure, maybe there is some truth to that. After all, it took his coaches nearly four seasons to discover him. Now that's slow. But in the past two games, Graham has been a bolt from the blue. With the Bucs clinging to a one-score lead against the Falcons on Sunday, Graham outraced everyone to the end zone for a 68-yard touchdown run — the longest of his career — to seal Tampa Bay's 24-9 victory. It was the second straight week Graham broke a big one — he had a 46-yard run in the season-opening loss at New Orleans last week. In fact, Graham ranks sixth in the NFL in rushing with 207 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries, a robust 8.3 yards per carry.
"I hope people stop saying that he can't break the long one, now," Bucs receiver Ike Hilliard said of Graham. "That's two weeks in a row.
"He's the thunder of the thunder and lightning, I guess, if you want to look at it that way. I'm happy for him. He's a guy who has worked his butt off from Day 1. He had to go the long route. Now he's getting an opportunity to play. It just makes you appreciate what he's doing. Maybe people will stop saying he's slow."
By now, everyone is familiar with Graham's story: cut three times by the Bucs, tabbed Mr. August for leading the team in rushing every preseason only to be stashed away on special teams.
All that changed last season when Graham took over for the injured Cadillac Williams and Michael Pittman. The former Florida star rushed for 898 yards and 10 touchdowns, earning a four-year, $11.05-million contract.
But everywhere Graham went in the offseason, he heard how he wasn't fast enough to make explosive plays.
"I was hurt most of the year last year," Graham said. "I had a really, really bad ankle injury. Last year was just me doing a lot of tough, tough running; just pounding and doing what I could do. There were Fridays where I didn't practice. I was just limping around the field.
"This year, I'm able to make some more explosive plays. I've had two the first two games, and I think the guys in front of me have a lot of faith in my ability. They're making some great blocks, and I'm able to put some different things on tape."
He's not alone. Graham, 28, says he has benefited from watching veteran Warrick Dunn. Sunday, they were in the same backfield when Graham's block sprung Dunn for a zigzagging 17-yard touchdown run on third and goal. The play gave the Bucs a 14-0 lead early in the second quarter.
"(Dunn is) making the same cuts he made at the beginning of his career because I watched it and I know," Graham said. "Growing up, I was a Warrick Dunn fan when he was at Florida State. I used to pretend I was No. 28."
In fact, it was Dunn's cutback run on a similar play one series earlier that prompted Graham to look for the same opportunity when he got the call late.
"We talked about it during the game," Graham said. "I came up to him and said, 'I don't know how you saw that'; to cut back all the way across the defense because I don't see that all the time. Sometimes, I'm a little north-south on my vision. But I saw him do it, and I said I was going to look for it. And it was there. So I've got to give credit to him."
Dunn, 33, finished with 49 yards on 12 carries, including the touchdown, against his former team. On the final touchdown, he wasn't sure Graham was going to make it to the end zone until he saw an escort, receiver Antonio Bryant.
"I thought he was going to run out of gas," Dunn said. "He was a little tired. It was the fourth quarter. He had been running the whole game, so I thought he was going to run out. But he ran out at the goal line."
Graham's longest run last season was only 28 yards. But running backs live for the big play, especially when they close out games.
"There's nothing like it," said Graham, who ran for 116 yards on 15 carries. "I don't care how I got there. It feels good to close a game out. It wasn't an Adrian Peterson 68-yard run, but I got there."
Asked about Graham's gallop Sunday, coach Jon Gruden grinned and tried his best to perpetuate the myth that the guy is slower than cold molasses.
"Earnest Graham has been criticized forever," Gruden said. "He'll be criticized more by people because he doesn't have breakaway speed. He's a slow guy. That's all I can say. I recommend that everyone just remember that he's a real slow back. He has no speed."