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Looking back at Jimmy Graham’s time with the Seahawks, for better and worse

NFL: Arizona Cardinals at Seattle Seahawks Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

On October 18, 2015, tight end Jimmy Graham was seemingly everything the Seattle Seahawks wanted him to be when they traded a first round pick and Pro Bowl center Max Unger to the New Orleans Saints to acquire him and a fourth rounder. Facing the Carolina Panthers on the road, Graham played in 51 of a possible 61 snaps.

Over 51 snaps, Graham was targeted 12 times. The first throw his way from Russell Wilson fell incomplete. The second went for 16 yards, setting up the Seahawks inside the Panthers’ red zone. The next throw by Wilson was completed to Graham, but gained zero yards. Seattle settled for a field goal.

Graham’s next target came a quarter later, and it went for 25 yards, putting the Seahawks back in the Panthers’ red zone again. Four plays later, Marshawn Lynch scored on a touchdown from one yard out (don’t even start with me right now).

Early in the second half, Seahawks leading 10-7 and facing 3rd-and-14, Wilson lofted it high and deep down the middle of the field, finding Graham for a 27-yard gain. The next play was a 40-yard touchdown pass to Ricardo Lockette. Seattle went up 17-7 and after Kam Chancellor intercepted Cam Newton two plays later, the Seahawks settled for another field goal and went up 20-7. Seemingly all was well, but Carolina was too talented to go away that easily, bringing the score to 20-14 on the next drive. Graham’s heroics throughout the day likely influenced Wilson and Darrell Bevell to throw to him on two of the next three plays, but both fell incomplete and the Seahawks were punting again.

But that doesn’t mean Graham’s impact was finished or that he hadn’t saved his biggest gain for late.

On the first play of the fourth quarter, Wilson is quickly pushed out of the pocket to his right, where he scrambles and lofts it once again to Graham, this time gaining 45 yards and flipping the field from their own 22 to Carolina’s 33. Lynch gained 17 yards on the next play and into the red zone, where again they settled for a field goal.

Up 23-14 with about eight minutes to play, the Seahawks had a 98% win expectancy. Whether it’s from memory or context clues, you probably know by now that Seattle did not end up winning the game. Even though the Panthers’ next drive ate up more than half of the remaining time, it resulted in a touchdown by Jonathan Stewart. Graham added another 20-yard gain on the first play of Seattle’s ensuing drive, but a holding penalty by Lynch on the next snap held back their chances of gaining another first down.

Cam Newton got the ball back with 2:20 and the Seahawks defense had nothing left to give. Greg Olsen scored from 26 yards out with :36 seconds left, giving the Panthers a 27-23 lead that they would end up holding onto.

Despite the loss, Graham, who had been considered a disappointment by many fans up to this game, had caught 8 of 12 targets for 140 yards. (In his first five games with Seattle, Graham had caught 21 of 28 targets for 204 yards.) This game served as a microcosm for a lot of things that were true about the Jimmy Graham era with the Seahawks, for better and for worse.

For one, Graham was productive in this game, and he ended up being the most productive tight end in Seattle history even though he was only with the team for three years:

  • Graham’s 170 receptions are the most by a tight end in franchise history, four more than Christian Fauria had, and six more than Itula Mili. He was well ahead of notable Seahawks tight ends Zach Miller, Jerramy Stevens, and John Carlson.
  • His 2,048 receiving yards is 305 more yards than second-place Mili.
  • Graham’s 18 touchdowns are three more than second-place Stevens.
  • His 7.73 yards per target ranks second among qualified tight ends behind only Luke Willson (8.24), who was limited for many other reasons.

Season-by-season, Graham still dominates.

  • The top-two seasons for catches by a tight end in franchise history now belong to Graham (2016, 2017), while 2015 ranks fifth. His 923 yards in 2016 ranks first by a tight end by 296 yards. Graham’s 2015 season ranks third even though he missed five games that year with a torn patellar tendon. His 10 touchdowns in 2017 ranks first, three more than Carlson had in 2009. His 9.72 yards/target in 2016 ranks first for qualified tight ends.

All told, Graham easily ranks as the best receiving tight end in franchise history, as well as one of the best receivers in franchise history.

  • His 170 receptions ranks 11th all-time among all Seahawks. He’s the only player in the top 22 to play in fewer than 46 games (43 games for Graham). He had five more receptions than Golden Tate in 15 fewer games. He had four more receptions than Fauria in 60 fewer games.
  • His 2,048 yards ranks 13th all-time. Seattle once made a big move to acquire Sidney Rice, and he had 1,463 yards in 33 games. Percy Harvin ended up with 150 receiving yards for the Seahawks.
  • Graham’s 18 touchdowns tied Bobby Engram for eighth-most in franchise history. Engram played 66 more games in Seattle than Graham did. Deion Branch had 15 touchdowns in 51 games. Fauria had seven touchdowns in 103 games. Yes, Fauria and Mili played in a different era of football for tight ends, but Tony Gonzalez was around. It’s not like teams didn’t know that you could throw to the tight end. And I think it’s indisputable that Graham is a special athlete for many reasons and should humans like him exist in the 90s and 2000s, they could be productive NFL tight ends. Graham represents a shift in the treatment of tight ends, for better and worse.

In that Carolina game, there was production, but there was also problems. The Seahawks found a way to get Graham 140 yards, move the chains, get in the red zone, convert on third down, attract attention from the defense, and all the things you want him to do when you give up a great player and a first round pick to acquire him. However, they also still failed to score in the red zone, kicking three field goals; “get better in the red zone” is likely reason number one for acquiring Graham.

Another issue could be that sometimes the desired attention turned into forcing attention. Graham gained 11.67 yards per target against the Panthers, leading many to believe that the transition period into Seattle’s offense was finally rounding out to getting the All-Pro receiver who set franchise records in New Orleans. But in the four weeks after the Carolina game, Graham was targeted 26 times and caught 15 passes for 186 yards. That’s just 7.15 yards per target, a rather low figure, especially for a receiving tight end.

Of players with at least 50 targets in 2017, 72 of them had more than 7.15 yards/target. That number goes as high as 11.61 with JuJu Smith-Schuster, and among tight ends, included Rob Gronkowski at 10.32. Six of Graham’s first 10 games with the Seahawks resulted in a Y/T below 6.5.

Even harder to swallow is that of those players with 50 targets in 2017, Graham ranked 122nd in yards per target, at 5.42. That’s some of the downside to Graham (not even getting into blocking situations) but there are still plenty more moments to appreciate.

Like the fact that Graham is lucky to still be playing and that his career could have easily ended with his 11th game as a Seattle Seahawk.

After ranking near the bottom of the league in scoring through nine games, the Seahawks put up 32 points in a loss to the Arizona Cardinals, then 29 in a win over the San Francisco 49ers. Then going against the Pittsburgh Steelers in a near must-win situation, Graham caught a pair of 18-yard gains during a second quarter drive, setting up a touchdown to Jermaine Kearse. In the third quarter, Graham had a 36-yard reception that went down at the one-yard line, setting up another score.

The Seahawks won 39-32, but lost Graham to a torn patellar tendon. Nobody knew if he would play again.

From July, 2016:

Dr. David Chao explained last week that the biggest issue with a fractured ankle is recovery not re-injury. Extra risks abound with a torn patellar tendon, as ESPN’s injury expert Stephania Bell explained recently.

”A study just published in June of this year in the American Journal of Sports Medicine looked at orthopedic procedures on over 550 NFL athletes,” Bell said, via ESPN’s Sheil Kapadia. “And of all the different surgeries that these guys have, those who fared the worst when it comes to rate of return to play and performance metrics like yards gained and touchdowns scored, [it was] patellar tendon repair.

”And their careers were shortened overall significantly. It’s not to say that one individual can’t come back and be phenomenal, but it’s telling you that the odds are against them in terms of returning to form.”

And this:

The Seahawks are committed to giving Graham every opportunity to come back and be a difference-maker. There doesn’t appear to be any scenario where he’ll be left off the roster in 2016.

But Graham’s contract carries a cap hit of $10 million in 2017. In other words, the Seahawks will have a decision to make depending on how he looks this year. History is not on Graham’s side, but he’ll try to do everything in his power to be the exception when it comes to athletes returning from patellar tendon injuries.

And the history of players with torn patellar tendons was extremely-not-good. The upside of recovery almost completely flattened hope that Graham would be the same again:

This is not an injury to take lightly. Victor Cruz was once a salsa-dancing Super Bowl hero. He wasn’t even able to get back on the field last season after his torn patellar tendon in Week 6 of 2014. While rehabbing, Cruz developed a calf strain; it was likely the result of muscle asymmetry, or what Bramel terms a “compensatory injury”—a second injury that develops because of an overreliance on a different muscle while trying to get back up to speed. Some of Cruz’s strength and flexibility just wasn’t up to par with what the rest of his body was used to.

Torn patellar tendons have left a string of football players limping in their wake. This is the injury that felled former Arizona running back Ryan Williams. It clamped down on the career of Minnesota draftee Greg Childs before he ever took a snap. It ended Pro Bowl center LeCharles Bentley’s career in Cleveland before it even began. Former No. 4 overall pick Cadillac Williams survived the surgery, but was a shadow of himself after it.

We could go on. The point, though, is this: it’s not uncommon for this injury to knock multiple years off an athlete’s livelihood. Even when it doesn’t end a football player’s career, it drastically diminishes their skill and staying power. Nate Allen, Patrick Robinson, and Morris Claiborne have all recovered from patellar tendon tears and are active today, but all three are basically journeymen at this point. New England Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo just retired this offseason over the injury.

Instead, Graham was ready to play by Week 1 of the 2016 season, a startling revelation given the stories about his injury in the previous 10 months. He had six catches for 100 yards in Week 3 and 6 more for 113 yards in Week 4. In a 31-25 win over the Buffalo Bills on Monday Night Football in the eighth game of the season, Graham caught 8-of-8 targets for 103 yards and two touchdowns.

Dating back to 2000, that is one of only 10 instances where a player caught 100% of his targets on at least eight targets, had 100 yards, and scored twice. It happened just one year after this:

For an injury that ended Victor Cruz’s career — even if that came through overcompensation on another body part — the torn patellar tendon has appeared to be as harmful as a broken pinky to Graham. In two seasons since, his 16 touchdowns ranks tied for sixth with Michael Crabtree. Among tight ends, his 16 touchdowns ranks first, while his 1,443 yards ranks fifth.

Graham tore his patellar tendon at the end of November, 2015. He led all tight ends in touchdowns from 2016-2017.

That “solving” of the red zone issue with Graham did bring up other issues along the way though. As mentioned, his usage in the offense became so frustrating at times that in five different instances in 2017 Graham had fewer than 10 yards in a game.

Week 1: 8 targets, 8 yards

Week 2: 2 targets, 1 yard

Week 14: 2 targets, 0 yards

Week 15: 3 targets, -1 yard

Week 16: 1 target, 3 yards

Outside of those five games, Graham had 80 targets, 51 catches, 509 yards, and nine touchdowns. If he had performed in his other five games like he did in those 11, Graham would have had an improved 6.36 yards/target. Still not great (Graham’s season high was 72 yards) but more acceptable, especially if he doesn’t disappear as he did in those five games (Seattle went 2-3 in those contests), and knowing that he was still the most effective tight end in the red zone. Kinda...

Combined with his lack of blocking ability though, Graham had to be let go of rather than franchised for well over $10 million. Instead he’ll be pairing with another high-end quarterback looking for weapons that will invigorate the offense: Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers.

And outside of the usual desire to see the Packers fail, I hope Graham does well. I think he fulfilled the promise he could have delivered to the Seahawks when they acquired him. I don’t believe he played worse than he did with the Saints, even if the numbers on the stats sheet are worse. I don’t believe that Seattle ever really knew how best to utilize him and he still managed to set every measurable franchise record for tight ends that matters, putting in 70% of the work after he had perhaps the most devastating knee injury that an athlete can have. Graham had issues with drops, blocking, and somehow Russell Wilson was at his best in that stretch at the end of 2015 when the patellar tendon injury happened. (He still had 8 TD/0 INT in those last two games with Graham though.)

But I think that’s the Graham that the Seahawks should have been expecting, other than not knowing he’d be injured or that they’d never find a rhythm after adding one of the NFL’s premier weapons into an offense with one of the league’s greatest quarterbacks. Nobody should feel sullen about his time in Seattle, nor should it feel like an opportunity wasted. Graham broke records and ranks among the greatest skill players in franchise history.

That 140 yards against the Panthers remains the most ever by a Seahawks tight end. That’s the way Graham should be remembered. Anything less is a missed opportunity to appreciate what having a player like Jimmy Graham feels like.