LOS ANGELES Doug Baldwin and Pete Carroll had the same reaction you and I did to Jimmy Graham’s first touchdown of the season.
"Finally," Baldwin said.
It wasn’t just that Graham finally scored in the fifth game of his contract season on Sunday. It was how the star tight end and Russell Wilson connected in the first half to begin the Seahawks’ comeback from being down 10-0 at Los Angeles to a revitalizing, 16-10 win over the previously rolling Rams at the Coliseum.
For three seasons, it hasn’t taken a scientist to break down how the 6-foot-7 Graham, a college basketball power forward and shot blocker at Miami, has a decisive height advantage near the goal line against every cover man in the NFL. None are 6-7.
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Yet for three seasons, the Seahawks have not taken advantage—or at least not nearly enough as they expected to when they traded two-time Pro Bowl center Max Unger and a first-round pick to New Orleans in the spring of 2015 for the league’s most prolific pass-catching tight end.
Graham had 46 touchdown receptions in his final four years with Drew Brees and the Saints. He had eight in three seasons with Seattle entering Sunday’s game for the NFC West lead.
When the Seahawks got to the 7-yard line in the second quarter while down 10-0 to the Rams, play caller Darrell Bevell sent Graham where many believe he always should be in the red zone: Outside, wide left, matched up man-to-man with 6-foot Rams safety John Johnson.
Then Wilson did what all of the Northwest has been begging for him to do over these three seasons. He took the snap, then just one step and lofted a simple pass that Graham could easily snag well above the helpless defender.
Easy touchdown. Seahawks back in the game.
"Well, first and foremost I want to say: Finally," Baldwin said. "Why was it a good throw? Because Jimmy is six foot seven, 280 pounds. I know that it’s football, there’s a lot of Xs and Os, there’s a lot of strategy behind it. But sometimes it just doesn’t get any more simple than that.
"He’s 6 feet 7. Throw the ball up to him. You don’t even have to throw it. Just underhand toss it over the there. He’s going to go up and get it."
Wilson had tried to do that in the opener at Green Bay last month, but it was on one of his constant scrambles for his life. His pass had too much momentum behind it and sailed well over Graham’s head out of the back of the end zone incomplete, an opportunity lost in a 17-9 defeat. He had three catches on seven targets for just 8 yards that day at Lambeau Field.
Wilson is notoriously averse to taking risks with the ball. That trait is what made Carroll fall in love with the coach’s rookie third-round pick in 2012. He made Wilson Seattle’s starter from week one of that season.
But last November against Buffalo, Wilson threw twice at the goal line to Graham even though he had a Buffalo Bills defender hanging on his arm. Graham caught both for his only two-touchdown game as a Seahawk.
"We just kept it simple and just went up and got it," Wilson said of this TD to Graham on Sunday.
"He’s special at that. … We were looking to find Jimmy there and the matchup, and, obviously, give him a chance to go make a play. He’s arguably the best tight end if the National Football League and one of the best to ever play the game, so we want to give him opportunities to make those plays.”
Carroll does, too.
"It was great to see that," the coach said. "We’ve been hoping to get that done, and we’ll continue to work that. Obviously, Russell threw the ball perfectly this time. Earlier in the year we missed it. But we won’t miss very many of those."
As long as they try it, that is.
Graham had a game-high six receptions, but for only 37 yards. Once again he did not talk to the media following the game. I think his two-touchdown night that had Wilson howling at Graham that he was a “bad man” following that win over the Bills 11 months ago is the last time he talked after a game. I and Louisiana writers walked with him 100 yards from one end zone to the other at the Superdome in New Orleans last October without him saying a word following a loss to his former Saints in which he didn’t get the ball thrown his way by Wilson in the red zone on the final play.
Wilson threw to Jermaine Kearse instead in New Orleans to end that game, making more people wonder why the Seahawks don’t just chuck jump balls to Graham in the end zone instead.
Sunday, Bevell split Graham outside wide in one-on-one mismatches far more, the majority of the time. He rarely played tight on the line at end, as he had been early this season. That had been largely to help “chip” block pass rushers against Seattle’s porous offensive line.
Wilson paid for Graham being outside more with 11 hits and three sacks. But Graham had his best game of the season.
Graham is months from the end of the contract Seattle inherited from the Saints in that trade. He could become a free agent in March. Some have looked ahead to the possibility the Seahawks will decide not to invest multiple years in the 30-year-old tight end and instead use their franchise tag to keep Graham for 2018 on a one-year contract. That would be either at the average of the top five salaries for tight ends next year or for a mandated 120 percent of the 2017 franchise-tag salary for tight ends of $9,865,555, or $11,838,666, whichever is higher.
With more days like Sunday, the Seahawks will have a tougher decision than it looked like they’d have over the first month of this season.