LONDON — Temperatures dipped to 50 degrees this dreary practice at the Buffalo Bills temporary home as Chris Hogan stepped into the cold tub to ice his feet.
When he played college lacrosse, when he was cut three times in the NFL, he never imagined standing here with this opportunity.
“Yeah, it’s crazy,” Hogan said. “I didn’t think I’d be starting a NFL game. But for me, I’ve got to think I belong here and that I can start in this league. So I’m just going to go out there with all the confidence in the world and try to make plays for this team.”
The Bills need him.
Out is Sammy Watkins with an ankle injury.
Out is Percy Harvin contemplating retirement.
Out is Marquise Goodwin on injured reserve.
At wide receiver, the only players still around from the opening day 53-man roster are Hogan and Robert Woods. It’s a MASH unit trying to survive 3,500 miles from home.
The 6-foot-1, 220-pound Hogan has lived up to his “7-11” moniker. And the second-round pick Robert Woods is the only receiver left of the three coach Rex Ryan dubbed all “No. 1” receivers.
Then, there’s special teamer Marcus Easley, off a shoulder injury, who has caught two passes in six seasons and Denarius Moore who was signed off the street two weeks ago.
EJ Manuel is at quarterback. LeSean McCoy is at running back.
Count on the Jacksonville Jaguars daring the Bills to beat them with the pass — Woods and Hogan say they’re ready.
“The two of us, we feel like we belong out here,” Hogan said. “I think people have confidence in us. I think we’re both QB-friendly wide receivers. We’re always getting ourselves in the right spot to get open. It’ll be fun on Sunday for sure.”
Woods is eager for more looks himself. What separates him? “How I get open.”
“Be an open target for the quarterback,” Woods said. “And hopefully, since I’m the No. 1 this week, I’ll be the first guy they look at.”
These are the days Woods works for, the days when more is put on his shoulders. The 6-foot, 201-pound third-year pro was mostly solid in a supporting role his first two years, but has been targeted at least 10 times only four times in his career.
He has learned how to stop his routes on a dime to create separation. He knows Sunday is a prove-it game in his career.
“Throughout the whole training camp,” Woods said, “leading up to this process we all have been preaching to ourselves ‘No. 1 receivers, No. 1 receivers.’ Now, it’s next guy up. We’ve got to step up, produce and have every guy ready. This is the time to really lead that group.”
Opportunities might’ve been fleeting for both receivers seasons past. Hogan, of course, played lacrosse at Penn State, one year of football at Monmouth (N.J.) University and then was cut by the San Francisco 49ers, New York Giants and Miami Dolphins before landing in Buffalo where he’s been a third or fourth option.
He wasn’t so much overlooked as he’s been “building” to get to this point as his position coach Sanjay Lal explained.
“This is his contract year,” Lal said, “and if people don’t see value in him then I would say he’s overlooked. People who watch the film — disregard the stats or stats don’t matter — he creates separation, catches the ball, he makes plays deep, intermediate and short. To me, that’s a really valuable guy and someone I’d personally covet to have on my team.”
Woods, to Lal, is similar. In the meeting room both carry high-level football conversations. Lal calls it talking Calculus, instead of Algebra. Say one is running a route and gets “three buzz coverage”—the linebacker “buzzes” underneath you at the steam. Hogan and Woods both know to turn inside instead of outside.
Lal has no question these two can carry a hurting position.
“I see it every day that they are starter-caliber,” he said. “I see no reason they can’t fill in and do a great job.”
Watkins would like to see 10 targets a game but he’s out again with his seventh injury since going fourth overall in the 2014 draft. For now, Hogan and Woods are the last two standing and the Bills will surely be using plenty of two-tight end sets with Charles Clay and Chris Gragg.
Hogan has tried to attack his career as a “constant, constant grind” from ripping through hours of film in search of a clue, a soft spot in a defense to leaning on all coaches he’s ever had. In addition to Lal’s expertise — who Hogan said “has changed my game” — he still talks to the Bills’ 2013 receivers coach Ike Hilliard, who’s now with the Washington Redskins.
Hilliard had 6,397 yards and 35 touchdowns his 12-year career and has coached in the NFL since 2011.
Said Hogan, “I think it’s a lot of the off-field stuff — my work ethic has kept me around.”
And each game, he’s beaten cornerbacks one-on-one deep whether the ball has arrived or not.
Outsiders will probably look at the Buffalo’s current plight as a doomsday scenario, yet there’s been nothing but calm from the Bills publicly this week.
Even General Manager Doug Whaley said “luckily we have Denarius Moore” when asked about Harvin’s sudden departure.
Who ever expected to hear those words back in August when players gushed over the wealth of talent at St. John Fisher?
Asked if he agrees with Watkins that Buffalo’s quarterbacks should take more chances, Hogan said Manuel and Tyrod Taylor are being coached, too. He’s only worried about his job, his need to get open.
“Playing quarterback is hard enough,” Hogan said. “I can’t imagine what they have to go through to make their job easier. When they want to take their shots they’re going to take their shots. And you can’t slack off when they want to take their shots. So you have to run and play hard every single play.”
With the Bills running out of receivers, Hogan and Woods probably get those shots, too.