The Seahawks knew it would take time to develop Graham’s role and develop chemistry with quarterback Russell Wilson. But the whole process has gone slower than expected.
RENTON — It’s telling that the questions have yet to stop. When the Seahawks traded for New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham this offseason, they faced volleys of optimistic questions focused on the glowing possibilities.
But through five games, the questions about Graham, and his role, are biting and relentless. The tone has changed.
“It’s always going to be a question for us; I know that,” offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said. “We’re doing everything we can to try to get everybody involved in the offense. We want Jimmy to catch balls. I know you’ll probably ask me that every week.”
Carolina @ Seahawks, 1:05 p.m., Ch. 13
So here we are. The narrative is well worn but worth revisiting: Graham has 21 catches for 204 yards and two touchdowns. Those numbers, averaged over a 16-game season, would be his worst since his rookie season in 2010 when he had a limited role.
What makes this pressing is the haul the Seahawks surrendered to acquire Graham. They traded one-time All-Pro center Max Unger and the prized commodity of a first-round draft pick. More than that, they took on Graham’s $8 million salary-cap hit this season, to say nothing of the money they’ll have to pay to keep him.
The Seahawks, for their part, have been clear and consistent with their answers about Graham.
“We’d love to get more,” coach Pete Carroll said. “We’d love to get more from everybody. I’d love to get the ball in his hands more.”
But they have made it clear that they won’t force the ball to Graham: “We’re moving the ball around,” Bevell said. “We’re not just going to sit here and throw him 5,000 balls.”
The Seahawks point to small problems, stacked on top of each other, as the reason for Graham’s limited production: protection problems, quarterback Russell Wilson missing him, defensive coverages, the design of plays (sometimes he’s the No. 3 option and he’s open, but the ball goes to the first option).
All fair points, but Graham’s lack of production has left many around the NFL scratching their heads.
Graham is one of the more unique players in the league, and he has long troubled defenses with his size and speed. But he has yet to click with the Seahawks and Wilson the way he did with the Saints and Drew Brees.
“Jimmy Graham has not lost a step,” former All-Pro tight end Tony Gonzalez said on the Jim Rome Show. “ … He’s still a phenomenal player. He’s with a different system now.”
Gonzalez went on to say, “The system he had out there, he was playing with a Hall of Famer out in New Orleans in Drew Brees, a surgeon. When you’re out there in that passing game and now you go to this offense, where it’s a run-first offense, run-second offense, Russell Wilson is not that guy who’s going to drop back and throw 40 to 45 times a game that he’s normally used to.”
The Seahawks are sending Graham on routes 10 percent less than his last year in New Orleans, according to Pro Football Focus, and are asking him to block more, never his strength.
Graham is averaging 9.7 yards per catch this season, which would be the lowest total of his career.
“Probably the biggest thing, in New Orleans, you saw him going a little bit more vertical,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said.
When the Seahawks got Graham, they raved about him in the red zone. That’s an area where the Seahawks struggled, and their weakness aligned with Graham’s strength: All 10 of his touchdowns last year came in the red zone.
As Wilson said before the season, “Throwing to him is easy.”
Yet Graham has only one touchdown in the red zone this season. Even when the Seahawks have tried to get him the ball in that part of the field, it’s often been clunky.
Wilson threw an interception last week against Cincinnati on a pass intended for Graham near the goal line. Former NFL quarterback Hugh Millen wrote in The Seattle Times that Graham backpedaled instead of attacking the ball, which led to the interception.
Other analysts thought Wilson held on to the ball for a second too long and missed the timing. Either way, it serves as a microcosm of what’s gone on.
There were at least two other plays against the Bengals where Graham could have gotten the ball but didn’t. Carroll pointed out that Wilson missed Graham on third-and-eight in overtime.
And in the first quarter, on the first drive of the game, Graham settled into the Bengals’ zone defense, but Wilson saw an opening and took off for 9 yards.
Had those three plays connected, Graham’s final stats would have looked much closer to expectation. But that’s the problem: Too often those plays haven’t connected.
“Three from years from now, Russell will probably see that route and stick it in there,” said NFL Network analyst and former NFL fullback Heath Evans, who was a teammate of Graham’s in New Orleans. “But what people grew to love about Jimmy, Russell’s incapable of doing right now. And it’s not his fault, but this is an experienced man’s game, especially at the quarterback position.
“We love Russell because he studies and works hard and does everything the right way that he can control. Well, his experience level he can’t control.”
The reality is that the Seahawks aren’t the Saints offensively, and under Carroll they’ve never had any intention of being so. The Saints averaged 41 passing attempts last season; the Seahawks are averaging 30 attempts this year.
Graham accepted that before the season, saying, “I know I’m probably not going to get targeted 130 times. But that’s not my concern. I just want to win games.”
The Seahawks knew it would take time to develop Graham’s role and develop chemistry with Wilson. But the whole process has gone slower than expected.
“He did well in this game, but we could use more,” Carroll said after Graham’s three-catch, 30-yard game last week.
“We only completed 15 passes in this game, so we need to get more activity out of him. Just like we need to get more out of the other guys, too. But he’s working hard at it.”