A NEW FLIGHT PLAN
This is an article from the Sept. 7, 2015 issue
Upon his arrival in Seattle, tight end Jimmy Graham found rush-hour traffic more constrictive than NFL defenses. His solution: not to weave through or around gridlock but to go over it, in a rebuilt World War II--era seaplane, the de Havilland Canada Beaver DHC-2. "Seaplanes are like the taxis of the Pacific Northwest," says Graham. "I'm basically rebuilding one so I can fly to work."
There's a metaphor in there somewhere, about the prolific pass catcher who moonlights as a pilot and an offense defined by its ground game that is now hoping to take flight. That's why the Seahawks dealt their center, Max Unger, and their 2015 first-round pick to obtain Graham from the Saints this off-season.
Graham is a certified pilot who became infatuated with stunt planes while in college at Miami and owns two single-engine aircrafts that he left back home in Florida. He didn't know if he would be able to fly in Seattle, at least not right away. Then he met John Nordstrom, one of the Seahawks' most prominent fans (his family, proprietors of the Nordstrom department stores, were the team's first majority owners) and one of the region's most inexhaustible seaplane pilots. He flew with Graham over the San Juan Islands, Hood Canal and the Olympic Mountains. Of Graham's pilot skills, Nordstrom says, "I was blown away."
The same went for attendees who sat packed into metal bleachers at the Seahawks' sold-out training camp. That's where a deejay played music so loud it echoed and Graham punctuated each of his myriad touchdowns with spikes Rob Gronkowski could appreciate. At 6'7" and 260 pounds, and with three Pro Bowl nods in five NFL seasons, Graham is in every way the Seahawks' biggest off-season addition. "It's like a fairy tale being here," he said. "Obviously, I came from a winning program. I've won games, broken records. But this seems like the next step in my career."
He paused. "For so long," he said, "I was an enemy of this team."
Graham's Saints lost to Seattle three times in the postseason, and he famously scuffled with Seahawks defensive end Bruce Irvin before a playoff game in 2014 at CenturyLink Field. The healing started in April, in Hawaii, on a team-bonding trip organized by quarterback Russell Wilson. There, Graham and Irvin hashed out their issues and even posted a picture on social media of a fake fight between them. Graham said he emphasized that he was not soft, that he could block, that he didn't care only about statistics. "I'm not a me guy," he said. "I'm here to win games. Simple as that."
The Hawaii jaunt also introduced Graham to the Seahawks' culture, where individuality is celebrated and a pilot fits in fine. Coach Pete Carroll quizzed Graham on his flight plans and asked to join him for a voyage. Graham said the Saints "weren't always so happy about me flying."
Seattle's retooling started after Super Bowl XLIX ended with Wilson's interception by Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler—on a play near the goal line that begged for a tight end with Graham's size and skill set. Seattle also snagged cornerback Cary Williams from the Eagles to replace the departed Byron Maxwell, and drafted Frank Clark, a defensive end from Michigan, and Tyler Lockett, a speedy returner-receiver from Kansas State. The Seahawks also found time to ink extensions for franchise cornerstones in Wilson and All-Pro linebacker Bobby Wagner.
Graham seems to be an immediate fit in Seattle. He said Wilson called or sent him text messages every day after the trade, and he described their connection as instant. "Oh, it's awesome," Carroll gushes.
The move will require some adjustments. Wilson scrambles and improvises in ways that the Saints' Drew Brees did not. Then there are the shooting contests in the team auditorium, where the low ceilings limit the arch on Graham's shot. "Hopefully we can get a dunk contest in there," Graham says. "I guarantee I won't lose that."
Graham plans, once the seaplane is rebuilt, to shuttle teammates to practice via the now-friendly skies. It will likely be the NFL's first plane pool, and one led by a player who never fit neatly into any one position. That's Jimmy Graham: tight end, receiver, pilot.
SI'S PREDICTION: 12--4
ANDY BENOIT ON THE SEAHAWKS' POWER RUN GAME
Russell Wilson's mobility is a crucial factor in Seattle's powerhouse ground game, and the threat he poses as a read-option ballcarrier benefits Marshawn Lynch (above) tremendously. When defenses are playing zone, Lynch faces defenders who must keep an eye on the quarterback and are therefore less likely to react quickly; if the defense is in man-to-man, the defender dedicated to Wilson is initially removed from the equation. But there's much more to Seattle's ground game than the read-option. Thanks to Lynch's ability to gain tough yards after contact, Seattle has one of the best zone rushing attacks in football. Most of Seattle's runs come on "outside zone" concepts, where the offensive line moves laterally. ("Inside zone" features straight downhill blocking with linemen double-teaming defenders up front and then working up to the linebackers.) On outside zone plays, a runner identifies a hole, makes one cut and goes. Typically this takes patience. The powerful and aggressive Lynch, however, plays with almost none. He cuts up before even crossing his center on about four out of every five zone runs (according to ESPN). Making his move so quickly minimizes the mediocrity of Seattle's O-line and further capitalizes on the distraction created by Wilson.