Dougherty: Packers TE Jimmy Graham lets his performance do his talking
The stat sheet says Jimmy Graham didn’t do much in the Green Bay Packers’ season-opening win over the Chicago Bears last week.
But the stat sheet (two catches for eight yards), if it doesn’t lie, surely misleads.
Graham didn’t make any plays, that much is true. But the threat that he might changed the way the Bears defended the Packers. They weren’t going to let the Packers’ new tight end beat them.
It showed up on three of the game’s biggest plays –Aaron Rodgers’ 39-yard touchdown pass to Geronimo Allison, Davante Adams’ 51-yard catch and run, and Adams’ 12-yard touchdown reception. On all three, Graham’s presence alone occupied the Bears’ defense – either via double teams or drawing a safety match-up – that opened the field for Allison and Adams to make their plays.
The NFL season is long, and last Sunday night isn’t likely to be Graham’s norm. Besides affecting game plans, he’ll have to make his share of plays for the Packers to be a top-scoring team.
At age 31 (he turns 32 in November), it’s doubtful he’ll put up numbers like early in his career with New Orleans, where he had four straight seasons of 85 or more catches. But the Packers are looking for him to be more like that player, deployed more as a receiver, than what he was the last three years in Seattle, which miscast him as a traditional tight end.
To get a sense of what the Packers think Graham can do, there’s this from Rodgers in a recent one-on-one interview:
“He sees things better than anybody we’ve ever had at that position here. He really does. You pair that with the attitude he has – as fiery and competitive as he is, he’s a very humble guy as far as his place on the squad and learning and never feeling like he’s above improvement or finding that extra edge by listening to how I see things or how I want things done. He’s an extremely respectful guy, and he earns your respect back very quickly. We’ve loved having him, fantastic guy. He’s extremely, extremely talented.”
As for Graham’s take on any of this, you haven’t heard it, and it’s not clear when you will. Since he signed with the Packers in March, he has made himself available to local media only twice – once on the first day of OTAs, and once at the start of training camp.
That’s how he also operated in Seattle, and to a lesser degree, when he played for the New Orleans Saints before that.
On one hand, it’s a shame. The two times he has been available, Graham has proven to be engaging and perceptive. Playing in the NFL is a very public job, and part of that is making yourself available for interviews – it’s a contractual mandate. More importantly, somebody has to stand up and speak for the players, especially when things go badly, which they eventually do for every team. The bigger the star, the greater the obligation.
On the other hand, Graham’s history offers a window into his reticence. Much of his upbringing is a harrowing story he has told publicly at least three times since coming to the NFL – once to ESPN in 2011, and twice to Foster Care organizations, including an affecting speech he gave at the White House Foster Care Youth Champions of Change event in 2015.
There isn’t space here to get into the heart-rending details, but here’s the barebones summary:
Graham was raised in Goldsboro, N.C., for much of his life by a neglectful mother who abandoned him multiple times to social services or group homes. Fortunately, when he was a young teenager, he met a single mother at a church who sympathized so much with his plight that she took him in and provided him with a real family and sense of self-worth.
He’s also temperamentally introverted, and as a source who worked with Graham in Seattle put it, “It’s just a trust thing for him, I think.”
The source said that unlike Marshawn Lynch, the former Seahawks running back who enjoyed the renegade image he garnered by disdaining interviews, Graham isn’t making a point or creating a persona by not talking to fans via reporters.
“He got along really well with guys on the team,” the source said, “but most of the time (kept) to himself a little bit. … Everybody likes him because he’s just a natural. He’s not pretentious or arrogant or any of that stuff. Personally, I think players really, really like him and know he’s team-oriented.”
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Graham is new enough to the Packers that most of his teammates don’t know him very well, but just about anyone who has talked to him for more than a couple minutes knows this: His passion is flying planes. When he was in Seattle he even occasionally flew to work and docked his seaplane at the Seahawks’ practice facility, which is on the shores of Lake Washington.
“He’s definitely introverted,” tight end Lance Kendricks said. “He’s a great guy, great teammate, super friendly. I think his plane is his getaway.”
I asked several of his teammates if they’ve been up in Graham’s plane, and none had, not even Davante Adams, who was Graham’s roommate in training camp and next-door neighbor in the locker room.
“I think he likes (flying) more than anything,” Adams said. “… I told him, ‘I don’t want to fly with anybody that it’s not their job flying every single day.' He tried to make it seem like it is what he does in the offseason all the time. I’m sure at some point because me and Jimmy are pretty good friends, I’m sure it will happen at some point. He’ll be more excited about it than me.”
Despite his introverted tendencies, Graham makes a splash on the practice field, and not just because he makes plays. Players rarely spike the ball after scoring a touchdown in team periods, but in training camp, Graham slammed the ball every time he scored, something he did in Seattle as well.
His status as a five-time Pro Bowler helps him get away it, though it’s a given that some defensive backs take exception if they won’t admit it publicly. You could feel that undertone when in the final week of camp safety Marwin Evans intercepted a jump ball intended for Graham, then spiked it near the tight end’s feet while the entire defensive back corps celebrated like the play had just won a game.
“When you first saw it, you’re like, ‘That’s how you’re going to do it?’” safety Kentrell Brice said. “But after a while, it’s just Jimmy. You know he’s going to slam it. But when we were able to get an interception and slam it right back on him, it’s a great feeling. He knows we’re teasing him back.”
Similarly, in a red-zone period on the first day of padded practice, second-year safety Josh Jones grabbed Graham’s face mask on a fade route and wasn’t called for a penalty. When Graham complained to the nearest official, Jones barked at Graham, and Graham went after him. A couple of assistant coaches had to jump in to prevent a fight. Part of me wondered why Graham didn’t dismissively ignore Jones instead of going after him, but it did flash his competitive streak.
“I kind of liked it because I knew he had a feistiness in him,” Brice said.
Said cornerback Tramon Williams: “It’s all about competition with him. It brings it out of guys.”
The Packers, in fact, signed Graham to spike the ball. They expect him to make the most difference in the red zone, where at 6-7 he’s a big, athletic target whose 69 touchdown passes ranks No. 5 among tight ends in NFL history.
That will be the ultimate measure of Graham for the Packers: How much noise does he make on the field?