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Are we done criticizing Jimmy Graham and the offense yet?

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NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Seattle Seahawks Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

When the Seattle Seahawks acquired Jimmy Graham from the New Orleans Saints last year, the deal was met with both excitement and criticism from Seattle’s side. Yes, they acquired a premier tight end who had scored 46 touchdowns over the previous four seasons (up there in points with an elite group that included Dez Bryant and ... Marshawn Lynch) but the Seahawks had to give up a first round pick and Pro Bowl center Max Unger. They also got a fourth round pick back from the Saints, but that couldn’t be enough for many fans to offset the fact that Seattle just doesn’t run a passing offense.

People often tend to wait for their opinions to be validated rather than change them, so it only took until Week 2 for many fans to say that it was affirmed as a shitty deal for the Hawks. Graham had six catches for 51 yards and a touchdown in Week 1 which was “fine” for many people, but then was targeted only twice with one catch and 11 yards in a loss to the Green Bay Packers in Week 2.

Send in the firing squad for John Schneider, he cost the Seahawks a chance to draft ,,, Dorial Green-Beckham? (Check the back end of the first round, top of the second round in 2015 ... It’s pretty uninspiring.)

Over the course of the next nine games, Graham and the Seattle offense featured their highs and lows. He had seven catches for 83 yards with a score in Week 3, eight catches for 140 yards in Week 6, seven catches for 75 yards in Week 8, and four catches for 75 yards in Week 11, the game in which he tore his patellar tendon. People often say that the Seahawks offense actually got better without Graham, but those timelines only line up in one of those aforementioned moments of affirming opinions with assumptions.

Seattle won four of their last five games with Graham and had scored 32 against the Arizona Cardinals, 29 against the San Francisco 49ers, and 39 against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Things were already going well, it’s just a testament to Russell Wilson and Darrell Bevell and Pete Carroll that they continued to go well without Graham.

Others will also say that it’s pointless to be paying a player $9 million per year if he’s not going to get targeted as much as he was in New Orleans, a pass-first-second-third offense behind Drew Brees.

Also an incorrect, baseless assumption that falls apart in the face of facts.

Graham was targeted 74 times in 11 games last season, averaging 6.72 targets per game and 8.17 yards per target. In 2014 with the Saints, Graham averaged 7.81 targets per game and 7.11 YPT. Brees was throwing to him more than Wilson was (one more target per game, woo) but with Wilson, the throws were more valuable on average. If he hadn’t gotten hurt, Graham was on pace for 107 targets last season; Rob Gronkowski was targeted 120 times in 15 games, Jason Witten was targeted 104 times in 16 games, and Ben Watson, who replaced Graham in New Orleans, was targeted 110 times.

With Seattle in 2015, Graham was averaging more yards per target, more yards per catch, and had virtually the same number of yards per game as he did with the Saints in 2014. The only things that went down were his catch percentage (from 68% to 64.9%, though that’s a higher catch rate than he had in 2012 and 2013) and his touchdowns, which took an admittedly significant dip from 10 to 2.

But that doesn’t mean he didn’t have some impact on scoring; playing alongside an elite, healthy receiving weapon for the first time in his career, Doug Baldwin caught four touchdowns in the three games before Graham went down. Stepping up in the offense after Graham was injured, on a team that had been scheming to throw touchdowns to their new tight end at some point, Baldwin went on to catch another eight touchdowns in the four games after he went out.

Coincidence? I don’t think a statistical anomaly like 12 touchdowns in a seven-game span can ever be attributed to a coincidence.

However, Graham did tear his patellar tendon and many wondered if he would be:

  • Ready for the start of Week 1 in 2016
  • Play in 2016 at all
  • Ever play again

These were all real concerns and the least-likely outcome for many people was that Graham would avoid starting the season on PUP. Go back anywhere on the internet and try to find examples of people saying that Graham would probably be ready for Week 1 of the regular season. Rumors trickled out and optimism was obviously boundless for Carroll and Graham, but not many people took it seriously.

It wasn’t until Week 1 rolled around and Graham was active against the Miami Dolphins, after missing all of the preseason, that it became clear that he would avoid officially missing regular season games. But even then, Graham was barely on the field and targeted zero times in the first half, once in the second, making an 11-yard catch to help the Seahawks come back and win the game. He was “out there” but he wasn’t effective. He wasn’t “Jimmy Graham.” So what did it even matter? This is not a $9 million tight end.

You want to see a $9 million tight end? Then look no further than .... Jimmy Graham three weeks later.

Over the last three games, Graham has caught 15 passes for 255 yards, 17 yards per catch, 71.4% catch rate, and 12.14 YPT. He hasn’t just displayed productivity like many may have assumed after five years in a high volume-passing offense like that of the Saints, but the highlights — especially over the last two weeks — show how truly unbelievable Graham is as a player.

Now Graham has back-to-back 100-yard games, just the seventh player in franchise history to do that, and he has a chance to become the first with three straight 100-yard games. He’s also been targeted 17 times in the last two weeks, showing that he can be and is a valuable part of a pass-forward offense. I don’t want to say “pass heavy” or “pass first” because it’s really just efficiency over abundance, but Graham is not being wasted with 3-4 targets per game. Less than a year from a devastating knee injury, Graham isn’t just back to being the player he was in 2014, in some respects he’s playing the best football of his entire career.

At least back to 2011, arguably his best season, when he had 99 catches, 1,310 yards, and 11 touchdowns. The last ingredient missing is of course Graham’s touchdowns, but as long as you’re not a fantasy-first football fan, it shouldn’t matter. Wilson threw three touchdowns on Sunday largely because he has Jimmy Graham. Not just as a distraction for the defense, but also because he moves the ball down the field and picks up first down after first down.

Graham may also catch 10-12 touchdowns this season though.

These last few games do not mean that Graham is going to be the best tight end in football, or even in the top 10. They don’t mean that he won’t get hurt again. They don’t even mean that if you liked the Graham trade like I did, that you were “right.” There probably won’t ever be a “right and wrong” there will just be those who agreed with the decision and those who didn’t.

But if you’re a Seahawks fan it won’t matter if you agree or not, you’ll still enjoy every moment that Graham has another one-handed grab, rips an interception from a defender for a long first down, or snags a red zone score. And yes, they are using him a lot and they are using him correctly, because he’s Jimmy Graham and that’s hard to fuck up.

On the topic of Graham playing at the height of his ability, I think we can all agree that’s something special to see.