Sunday won’t be the first time Jimmy Graham has played in Seattle since the end of his three-year career with the Seahawks.
Graham first returned to Seattle in 2018 as a member of the Green Bay Packers, catching for 13 yards in a 27-24 Seahawks victory.
But his return with the Chicago Bears for Sunday’s 1:05 p.m. game at Lumen Field is a little more poignant.
Graham is 35 and will be a free agent at the end of the season, one in which he will have just 10 catches for 121 yards and two touchdowns in 12 games, which makes it seem like he’s on the phone. (While this is a career that will almost certainly end in the Hall of Fame, as Graham is one of the tightest three ends in NFL history with over 700 catches, 8,000 yards and over 80 touchdowns, joining Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates.)
He was seen as the missing piece of another Super Bowl run for the Seahawks, and it also feels like they’re at the end of their own run, going 5-9 and essentially out of the playoffs. playoffs with three games to go.
To some Seahawks fans, the exchange for Graham in March 2015 seemed like an unfortunate turning point.
About a month after the Seahawks’ stunning loss to New England in Super Bowl XLIX, they made what seemed like a reactionary move for their last offensive play of that game – when Russell Wilson’s pass was intercepted on the goal line by Malcolm Butler. The Seahawks traded their first-round pick and center Max Unger to New Orleans for Graham and a fourth-round pick.
Graham was considered one of the NFL’s best red zone threats, a 6-foot-7 former college basketball player who caught 51 touchdowns in his first five seasons with the Saints, available in part because of lingering grudges from a contract dispute the year before.
A dominant threat in the red zone is what the Seahawks needed and did not have in the Super Bowl game that will never be forgotten, as everyone in Seattle will try.
Graham had previously had two seasons of 1,000 yards or more, three Pro Bowl invitations and an All-Pro nod.
The Seahawks might already have the best running game in the NFL with Marshawn Lynch and Wilson at the peak of his zonal reading powers, but they didn’t have much star power at the receiver level other than Doug Baldwin.
It seemed like a game made in heaven, and Seahawks fans began to dream of Graham’s limitless catches and touchdowns.
“Huge expectations were always fun to deal with,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said this week.
In a 2015 season in which the Seahawks already faced a Super Bowl hangover as well as surprising resistance from Kam Chancellor, Graham only had a 100-yard game and two forward touchdowns. of sustaining a patellar tendon injury in Game 11, ending his season.
Perhaps forgotten is that Graham returned to make the Pro Bowl the next two seasons. He recorded his career-best yards-per-catch average in 2016 at 14.2 with 923 yards, the fourth-best of his career. In 2017, he caught 10 touchdowns.
After the season, his contract ended and Graham signed with Green Bay.
He left Seattle setting almost every season and a career record for a Seahawks tight end despite just 43 games. His 18 touchdowns remain tied for 10e– most of any Seahawk. His yards per game of 47.6 rank 12e, and his total yards of 2,048 rank 17e.
His averages weren’t that far off his Saints numbers, especially considering the difference in infractions. He had 4.0 catches per game with the Seahawks against 4.9 with the Saints and 47.6 yards per game against 60.9 with New Orleans.
Many joked at the time that all Graham needed to bring his numbers to their New Orleans level was a team that knew how to use it.
But that did not turn out to be true. Graham has averaged just 2.9 catches and 33.8 yards per game in two years with the Packers and quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who has shown he knows how to execute an offense.
Graham has done a lot less in Chicago over the past two years – 2.1 catches and 20.6 yards per game.
Maybe it wasn’t so much the Seahawks who didn’t know how to use it, but Graham who was starting the setback in his career, especially after the kneecap injury.
Yet this stigma has always persisted.
And for many Seahawks fans, the cost of Unger has proven to be too high considering how difficult the offensive line has been since.
Perhaps forgotten is the context of the time.
Unger fought injuries in 2014, only played six regular season games and was replaced at the end of the year by Patrick Lewis. The Seahawks went 4-0 with Lewis starting center in 2014, including a 35-6 win over Arizona in the penultimate game of the year in which the Seahawks set a team record with 596 yards, which still stands. It was a key victory as the Seahawks won the NFC West and seed for a second consecutive year.
Unger was still two years old with a contract averaging over $ 5 million per season.
The Seahawks figured they could adequately replace Unger – it was not known how long he could keep playing – with a younger, low-cost player while adding the kind of dynamic playmaker they couldn’t have. in the draft in the first round.
Unger not only regained his health – he missed only one game in four years with the Saints – but played well, making the Pro Bowl in 2018 his last season before retiring at 32.
Lewis struggled with an ankle injury the following year and started only nine games (Drew Nowak memorably started the first two games of 2015) and was gone by 2016, with the Seahawks ultimately turning to Justin Britt center in 2016. Britt kept him the next four years, and for what it’s worth, he had a better season rating than Unger in two of the three years of 2016-18.
And true, the Seahawks gave up a lot of draft capital – the pick they gave the Saints was # 31, the pick they got was # 112. The Seahawks used the pick they got. they got as one of four they handed out in Washington to move 69-95 to pick up a receiver named Tyler Lockett.
New Orleans used the 31st choose Clemson linebacker Stephone Anthony. Anthony started every game as a rookie, but after battling inconsistencies and injuries he was traded a year later for a fifth-round pick and has been out of the league since 2019, having started just 20 games. in his career.
So the Seahawks got three years from Graham and a pick they used to get Lockett for four years from Unger and a pick the Saints used on a linebacker who basically played a year. These compromises don’t look so bad in retrospect.
The Seahawks made it possible for Graham to come back and win the Super Bowl, and while it isn’t all his fault that it didn’t happen, it’s that disappointment that can still linger.