OWINGS MILLS, Md. — By the time his days with the Chicago Bears started winding down, Corey Graham could feel himself being pigeonholed.
He had earned a reputation at the University of New Hampshire. He started four years at cornerback, but the highlight of his college career was the kickoff he returned 99 yards for a touchdown against Georgia Southern in the 2004 NCAA Division 1-AA tournament. That reputation followed him to the NFL.
He fell into a special teams role as a rookie and over the next five seasons that was the part Bears coach Lovie Smith wanted him to play. Graham saw his identity as a defensive back diminish. He was on a team with one of the best defenses in the league and wanted to truly be a part of it.
“When you are good at something, it is tough,’’ Graham said. “When you get the label of a special teamer, it is tough to get that label off of you no matter what you do. Lovie Smith, he loved what I did as a special teamer, and that is what he wanted from me no matter what.
“So, I could go out at practice and get six interceptions at corner, but no matter what, in the meeting I was going to be ‘Corey Graham: Special Teamer.’ That is just how it was. That was what he wanted from me, and that was my role in Chicago.’’
He signed a two-year contract with the Baltimore Ravens last offseason looking for an opportunity. He had seen other players such as former teammate Brendon Ayanbadejo
go to Baltimore and take on major roles. And when injuries ate at the Ravens’ secondary, doors opened for Graham. Lardarius Webb went down with a torn ACL, Jimmy Smith needed surgery for a hernia, and Graham got his chance.
“Before I signed here, I knew that it was a place that if you showed what you can do and if you showed that you deserve to be out there, you will be out there,’’ Graham said. “That is all you want as a player is a chance to play, and I knew when I sat down to talk to coach [John Harbaugh] that he would give me that chance. That’s all you can ask for.’’
Graham started eight games during the regular season, intercepting two passes, but made his biggest impact a week ago when he picked off Peyton Manning twice and helped push the Ravens to the AFC Championship game this weekend against the Patriots.
“When we got Corey on this football team, we knew he was a really good football player, and he wanted an opportunity to do more than just be a special teams player,’’ said special teams coach Jerry Rosburg. “So Corey was given the opportunity to do the things that he does well. He was, obviously, a dynamic special teams player, and then all the way through training camp, he kept making plays. It didn’t take us long to figure out he’s not only a good special teams player, he’s a football player.’’
UNH coach Sean McDonnell figured out the same thing. From the moment he watched Graham’s recruiting tape, McDonnell knew he was dealing with an athlete. Graham was a running back at Turner Carroll High School in Buffalo and returned kicks. “He could really cover ground,’’ McDonnell said. “He was very long and athletic.’’
McDonnell brought Graham in without any labels. He thought Graham could be a wide receiver or a defensive back.
“But the thing that you found out about Corey, he liked being on the field,’’ McDonnell said. “The one way to really ensure touching the ball was catching kicks, returning punts, returning kickoffs. Anything covering kicks and things like that he loved to do. He just loved to be on the field because of his competitive nature. Defensively we wouldn’t take him off the field because he was the best defensive player we had.
“He always felt that when given the opportunity to play full time, that he would prove to people what type of player he was.’’
Graham has kept in contact with McDonnell and been generous to the Wildcats program. Graham said he expects to see some familiar faces in the crowd on Sunday but he doesn’t expect them to be cheering for him.
“They have diehard fans out there,’’ he said. “Obviously, you don’t want to lose against the Patriots, especially when all of my friends are going to be out there probably with Patriot jerseys on. It’s going to be a little different his week, but no matter who you are playing, you want to go out there and win.’’
An even flow
Joe Flacco, the only quarterback in NFL history to reach the playoffs in each of his first five seasons, disagreed that everything speeds up in the playoffs. “I think that’d be a criticism to every NFL player out there,’’ Flacco said. “The fact that you’re playing one way in the regular season and a completely different way in the playoffs, I think that’s a bunch of crap. I think we go out there and lay it on the line every week’’ . . . Since Harbaugh took over in 2008, no team has forced more turnovers in the playoffs than the Ravens (31). The Patriots have only turned it over 11 times in the same span, but seven have come at the hands of the Ravens.