GREEN BAY - The last time he spoke publicly — back in the days when strapping on the pads for the first time in training camp was a fresh story — Green Bay Packers tight end Jimmy Graham left a not-so-subtle hint of what he might still be able to do.
His body, he said, felt the best it had in a long time. Yes, he was aware of all the doubts and skepticism after his first season with the Packers, that “everybody thinks I’m old and slow” now. Graham was ready to prove otherwise.
“I’ve got to go up and make those plays,” Graham said on Aug. 5. “When I get those opportunities, I’ve got to show them that I’m the biggest, fastest thing out there. I’ve got to go up there and get those grabs for him. So I’ve been focused, and I’m ready to get this thing started, honestly.
“… I’m about as fired up as I’ve ever been to go and shut a lot of people up.”
Eleven weeks later, Graham’s encore season in Green Bay, his prove-it tour, has not unfolded that way.
In fact, Graham’s production has only further dipped as he approaches his 33rd birthday next month. The five-time Pro Bowler has caught just 18 passes for 214 yards in seven games. His three touchdowns are one more than last year, but it has been the potential scores Graham has dropped that have been more memorable.
Twice, Graham tried to catch a pass from Aaron Rodgers one-handed instead of using two in the end zone against the Philadelphia Eagles. Secure either of those grabs, and perhaps the Packers are 7-0 right now. Graham also dropped a touchdown against the Detroit Lions two weeks ago.
Graham had what Rodgers described as his best game of the season in last week’s blowout win against the Oakland Raiders. Still, his four catches for a season-high 65 yards, including a 3-yard touchdown, are a far cry from the numbers Graham used to yield. Graham once caught at least 85 receptions over a four-year stretch with the New Orleans Saints. In three of those years, he had double-digit touchdowns. He exceeded 1,200 yards in two of those seasons.
Even in Seattle, when Graham’s production had begun to dip, the veteran found ways to remain an important part of the Seahawks' offense. Graham caught 65 passes for 923 yards and six touchdowns in 2016, when he was 30 years old. He had 57 catches for 520 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2017, his last season before signing a mega three-year, $30 million contract that places him atop his position leaguewide in annual average salary. Graham was a Pro Bowler in both of those seasons.
Graham famously muttered “my numbers suck” last season. Even then, he caught 55 passes for 636 yards. He is not remotely close to being on track to match that production this fall.
What, then, does Graham think of his numbers now?
“We’re 6-1,” Graham said Wednesday, referencing the Packers’ record. “I don’t know about — I don’t really check stats and media and all that good stuff. I know we’re 6-1, and I hope we keep doing what we’re doing.”
Whether the Packers keep doing what they’re doing doesn’t rely on an uptick in Graham’s production — so far, they’ve won without the former Pro Bowl tight end producing like a Pro Bowler — but it would sure help.
Both Rodgers and coach Matt LaFleur maintain Graham is an important part of the offense. Rodgers has said often he wants his veteran tight end to be more involved in the passing game, not less. “I just think it’s about opportunities,” has been the quarterback’s standard operating line.
Even Sunday, Rodgers said, the Packers didn’t scheme much for Graham. Only one of his four catches were designed for Graham to be the primary target.
“That’s the ability that he brings,” Rodgers said, “is the off-schedule stuff. … That was to me what stood out the most. It wasn’t like we were scheming up a bunch of plays for him. He got some opportunities and made guys miss. That’s got to give him more confidence going forward.
“Jimmy has super-high expectations for himself and a lot of great confidence. We’ve got to keep finding ways to get him the ball.”
Graham has seen his playing time decline sharply this season. After being on the field for 74 percent of snaps last season, he has played just 63.4 percent this season. That’s mostly because of an increase in fellow veteran Marcedes Lewis’ role. Lewis has seen his playing time more than double this fall, from 17 percent of snaps last season to 41 percent this fall.
Lewis’ productivity has also increased. His nine catches for 119 yards might not seem like much, but it's triple what he combined for all of last season (three catches, 39 yards). Graham said he’s pleased with his teammate — “some of my most exciting moments this year,” he said, “has been watching Marcedes pancake people” — but believes there’s still a role for himself in the Packers offense.
“I know my time will come,” Graham said. “Last week, we were able to connect on some of those times. Hopefully we can just kind of keep building on that, and I take hold of those opportunities when those opportunities present themselves.”