The Seahawks' 2014 season ended abruptly, with Malcolm Butler's goal-line interception of Russell Wilson sealing a 28-24 loss in Super Bowl XLIX. The fateful playcall, a pass from the one-yard line on second-and-one in the game's final seconds, was an odd decision for multiple reasons. Ricardo Lockette isn't at all a slant receiver, yet he was sent across the middle with the season on the line. The Patriots also audibled to a three-cornerback goal-line defense before the play, and the extra cornerback on the field fueled the confusion of those who wondered why the Seahawks didn't just give Marshawn Lynch the ball. Factor in that unheralded receiver Chris Matthews, who had killed the Patriots all game, wasn't even on the field for that play, and you have a disaster in several steps.
Still, the fact that Seattle chose to pass instead of run does speak to the team's serious desire for more big, versatile targets in their passing game, and they followed through on Tuesday by trading their 2015 first-round pick and center Max Unger to the New Orleans Saints for tight end Jimmy Graham and a fourth-round pick. The Seahawks will miss Unger, a former All-Pro who has had the last two seasons cut short by injury, but as coach Pete Carroll said, Graham is the rare kind of player who makes such a blockbuster deal worthwhile.
"We think he’s a fantastic target that we can implement in a number of ways," Carroll said Tuesday. "I think all the ways we’ve come to understand is pretty clear: He’s a big receiver, plays big, makes plays in a crowd, makes plays on top of guys, is a very effective player in the red zone, he’s been a consistent scorer. So all of that stuff, we’re going to fit it into our offense and make him a very obvious complementary part of it. When you have to deal with Marshawn and it starts with the run game and Russell doing his thing to complement the receivers that we have, we think this is a great addition. Your best players always help your other guys play well and be productive. That’s what we’re hoping for."
Graham, to his credit, has already been crunching tape on his new team, and he agrees with Carroll's assessment regarding his potential value in this unique system.
"I’ve been watching some film and it seems like a lot of teams play a lot of cover zero against them because of Marshawn Lynch and because the read-option is so good," Graham said during a Thursday conference call with Seattle media. "Marshawn, you have to put guys in the box, you have to bring safeties down, and so when you’re playing cover zero, there’s a lot of one-on-one [coverage]. There’s a lot of opportunities down the field, there’s a lot of opportunities in that middle section where you’ll have guys on these one-on-one matchups. I think eventually teams won’t be able to do that. You’re not going to be able to go cover zero just to stop the run. I think I can help open that up. Then in the red zone, that’s something I’ve always been good at. I’m 6’7”, 260 pounds and most of those are like a rebound for me. So I’m looking to fit in anywhere they need me."
Let's start with the coverages that defenses attempt to deploy against the Seahawks and Lynch, which are further strained the fact that Russell Wilson tends to be very successful with Seattle's read-option package. In Week 16 against the Cardinals, the backfield action caused Arizona's entire defense to seize up, and tight end Luke Willson (who, by the way, is a pretty good receiver himself) was wide open for an 80-yard touchdown. Lynch flared to the left out of the backfield, Doug Baldwin went in motion to the right, Wilson's roll-out caused the final vapor lock in coverage, and Willson had an easy path to the end zone. Watch how the defense keys on Lynch, especially—that's a common trend among Seattle's opponents. And now, they'll have to have the same level of focus on Graham, because when defenses align one player on Graham in coverage, things can get ugly pretty quickly.
Here's Graham's 22-yard touchdown against the Packers from Week 8 of last season. There's 2:13 left in the third quarter, and Packers cornerback Tramon Williams is playing Graham straight up in man coverage. Graham goes in motion from right to left across the formation, challenges Williams from the slot with an out-and-up and wins decisively with his 6'7", 265-pound frame, jumping over Williams for the grab. It's plays like this that explain why Graham led the NFL in touchdowns in 2013 with 16, and why he's been one of the most dangerous red-zone threats in the league since he became a major factor for the team. He has 50 receptions in the red zone over the last four seasons. According to ESPN Stats & Info, the Seahawks have fifty total red zone receptions from their tight ends ... over the last eight years.
That said, there are two knocks on Graham that stand in the way of putting him in the discussion with Rob Gronkowski as the best tight end in the game. Graham has issues making catches in situations where he could get hit, and his blocking leaves something to be desired. The blocking issue could be improved with more reps—according to Pro Football Focus, Graham had 27 pass-blocking snaps in 2014, 4.9% of his 547 total passing snaps. His ability to be physical in the middle of the field is a more complicated issue. Here's Graham on a seam route against the Falcons in Week 16, flashing alligator arms when Drew Brees throws him into a zone pocket between three defenders.
Graham was not as effective in 2014 as he was the year before, and that's only partially on him. Brees was not as accurate with his deep throws as he had been in previous seasons, and the protection up front was a problem. So, we don't know whether plays like this one from Week 2 in Cleveland, where Brees misses Graham on a deep pass and the ball is returned 62 yards for a touchdown by Cleveland safety Tashaun Gipson, are the result of miscommunication or a lapse in concentration, but they do happen at times. Given Brees' Hall of Fame résumé, Graham is going to get the majority of blame for bad plays.
But Graham scored two touchdowns in that same game, and this vertical grab against Browns cornerback Joe Haden once again shows why he's so intriguing to a team with a 5'10" quarterback who has developed a preternatural touch with deep passes and jump balls. Certainly, Carroll and Schneider must have thought, this is a guy who won't let a reserve cornerback box him out at the one-yard line in a critical moment.
As Greg Cosell of NFL Films and ESPN's NFL Matchup explained in our latest podcast, the Seahawks' unique combination of formation diversity, backfield action and past success in spite of the glaring need for a target of Graham's caliber makes this move a slam dunk.
"It's imperative that they get a receiving threat—and ideally, a tight end—because Russell Wilson is an outstanding seam thrower. That might be his best throw," Cosell said. "And this goes back to the Sid Gillman school of thought—the father of the modern passing game—that if you can control the middle of the field in the passing game, it opens up everything else. And now, they have a player that they can use to control the middle of the field. He's a matchup weapon you can line up anywhere.
"What a guy like Jimmy Graham does—and this is just one of the things he does—now, they're going to have a situation where they can line up with two tight ends, and if you're a defense, how are you matching up to that when you play Seattle? Because you have the major run game, so are you matching up with your base defense because they have two tight ends on the field, and because you're concerned about Marshawn Lynch? Or, are you viewing Jimmy Graham as a theoretical wide receiver and you're playing nickel, in which case you have a lighter body on the field to defend the run?"
In the end, the disparity between Jimmy Graham the tight end and Jimmy Graham the receiver is exactly what Seattle wants. While others may denigrate Graham for his inability to fit into this or that slot, the Seahawks seem to see him as the perfect hybrid nightmare for every defense they face.
The big question: Can Graham be even better in an offense that requires its tight ends to block and understand that there won't be as many passing opportunities? No team has attempted fewer passes over the last two seasons, and even the addition of Graham won't change that too much. This move is probably more about explosive plays and red-zone opportunities than making sure Graham gets 130 targets. Which means he'll have to maximize those opportunities.
"In New Orleans, we’ve really been slinging the rock, but it’s all about winning," Graham said. "It’s all about having an opportunity and a chance to win a championship, and that’s what I care about. If a team needs me to catch 100 footballs or a team needs me to catch 30, or a team needs me to catch 15 touchdowns or five touchdowns, I’m gonna do it. I’m going to do whatever it takes to win. I’m not complaining at all about any of that. I just want to be a part of this team and I want to be there in big moments for this team and this franchise to help us win games."
If Graham can adapt to his new role and reality, the Seahawks may have found the piece that gets them back to the Super Bowl—and the X-factor with the skills to re-write the ending to their 2014 season.