GREEN BAY - The rep is over. There’s a momentary pause Saturday afternoon as players head back upfield, returning to their respective huddles. It’s quiet on Ray Nitschke Field. The action has barely begun in the first padded practice of Green Bay Packers training camp.
But Jimmy Graham is seething.
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ pass just sailed over his head, but there should’ve been a penalty. Josh Jones, Graham asserts, grabbed his facemask. He’s sure of it. Graham looks around for the yellow flag, but it remains tucked in the referee’s pocket.
And now he’s fuming.
What followed was a spectacle, camp’s first scuffle. As Graham pleaded his case to the local practice ref, Jones started barking. It would be easy to fixate on the pluck of a second-year safety not backing down against a five-time Pro Bowler, but it would perhaps miss the point.
Jimmy Graham is that five-time Pro Bowler, someone who has accomplished more than most in professional football, but he wasn’t about to shrug off the indignity of a blown call. Even if it was his first padded practice of the season. Even if this official won’t be making any calls on Sundays.
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“I’ve always had a couple run-ins,” Graham said afterward while standing at his locker, where he spoke with reporters for the first time since April. “I’m just a competitive player. A physical player, I think. We’re all just trying to be out there competing and challenging each other on everything.”
As the 2018 Packers start formulating their identity, one thing is already apparent: Graham will be a big part of it.
He is too respected, having already achieved too much in his career, to be a fringe acquisition. No, Jimmy Graham figures to be part of the Packers’ heart and soul. One of their most important players. His influence will be an example teammates follow.
So it can’t hurt that the veteran set a tone in Saturday’s practice that, ahem, was quite different than the approach jettisoned veteran Martellus Bennett took a year ago. Bennett meant business once the ball was snapped, but he spent the time between practice periods loafing from station to station. Graham couldn’t contain his intensity after the whistle, stopping multiple times to inform practice officials he was accosted by a defensive back.
It’s much too early to know how much success Graham will have in Green Bay, but initial impressions have been overwhelmingly positive. Rodgers hasn’t bothered containing his excitement this offseason, including Thursday in his first camp address to the media.
“He’s a big target. He catches the ball with his hands,” Rodgers said. “You know, we haven’t had a guy like that around here in a while. Obviously, Jared (Cook) did a lot of those things, but Jimmy, he’s got a great feel for coverages, getting open. He uses his body really well, runs good routes, and he’s a matchup issue.
“We haven’t had a consistent matchup-issue guy like that for a long time.”
With only one padded practice concluded, it’s premature to make any sweeping determinations about Graham’s ability to acclimate into the Packers' offense. As Graham pointed out Saturday, there are several installations to go before he has practiced the entire playbook. Four months from his 32nd birthday, he’s also nearing the high-mileage portion of his career.
But the Packers need Graham to be a major weapon this fall, especially after releasing Rodgers’ former go-to receiver, Jordy Nelson. If Graham carries his body of work this offseason into live reps and, later, regular-season snaps, the tight end who caught 10 touchdowns last season certainly appears capable of being a dynamic playmaker.
It helps, Graham said, to play with a quarterback like Rodgers. It isn’t his first time with a quality passer. The former New Orleans Saints third-round pick spent his first five years catching passes from Drew Brees. He’s shared an offense in Seattle with Russell Wilson the past three years.
Still, Graham said, Rodgers is different.
“I’ve played with some pretty good quarterbacks,” Graham said, “and Aaron, he’s just a special arm. Where he puts us on the sideline, where he throws us back shoulder, is pretty unbelievable. For me, I’m not going to compare him to anybody I’ve played with. Aaron’s in his own category.”
It isn’t surprising Graham and Rodgers appear so connected, so quickly. For years, they discussed between themselves the idea of playing together, the possibilities that would come with them joining forces. Graham is wired similarly to Rodgers, bringing intensity to the practice field, never wasting a rep.
He’ll even challenge a referee in August like it’s late December.
Graham’s appreciation for Rodgers’ gifts is also clear. He hasn’t been spoiled by the great quarterbacks of his past. While Graham appears to be quickly gaining respect from his new teammates, he also reserves the same for his new quarterback.
There’s still work to do, but the two already share a high level of trust.
“He’s always going to throw you open,” Graham said. “He’s always going to throw to the open spot. He’s going to protect you, and he’s going to protect that ball. I know when he leads me out there that I can just run right through it. I’ve got no worries in the world because I know he’s the eyes in the back of my head. And we’ll just keep working on that.
“It’s not him getting on my page, it’s me getting on his page. He’s been in this league a long time, knows too much, and I’ve got to just catch up and just take every day, learn every day and make sure I’m supposed to be where I’m at so I can make that catch and make that big play.”
Pete Dougherty and Ryan Wood analyze the feisty first practice in pads at Packers training camp. Packers News