RENTON Against Jacksonville, he looked disinterested.
Against Los Angeles, no one could tell what he looked like. He, like his offense, disappeared.
Just as the Seahawks have needed him most the last two weeks, with their season and hopes for a sixth consecutive playoff appearance at stake, Jimmy Graham has vanished.
Seattle’s $10 million-a-year tight end has one catch over the last two games, for a grand total of minus-1 yard. The Seahawks (8-6) have lost both games, to the Jaguars and the Rams. They’ve gone from rolling, beating previously 10-1 Philadelphia by two touchdowns and seemingly on track for home playoff games, to now needing need Santa, all his reindeer and every bit of holiday luck to steal the NFC’s sixth and final playoff spot.
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The postseason odds are so long--a 10-percent chance, according to FiveThirtyEight.com--Sunday’s game at equally desperate Dallas (8-6) and the regular-season finale versus Arizona may be Graham’s last games as a Seahawk. The 31-year old’s contract ends after this season, leaving Seattle with what could be an $11.88-million (or so) decision about keeping him.
Graham’s arrival across the country by his own private plane in the spring of 2015, in Seattle’s trade of two-time Pro Bowl center Max Unger and a first-round draft choice to New Orleans, was as heralded as maybe THE move of the Pete Carroll-John Schneider era. The most prolific pass-catching tight end on the planet was coming to fix the last wobbly piece of the Seahawks’ offense: red-zone scoring.
Nearly three years later, Graham isn’t going out nearly as stylishly as he came in. Or even semi-decently.
Graham had zero catches on three targets against the Jaguars on Dec. 10. On the second play after halftime with the Seahawks down 3-0, he let Jacksonville cornerback A.J. Bouye cut in front of him and intercept the pass Russell Wilson threw a couple yards in front of Graham on an out route. It was one of Wilson’s three interceptions in the 30-24 loss. Graham compounded his I-won’t-get-that look on the play by needlessly shoving Bouye into a Seahawks teammate standing in a parka well out of bounds at the end of Bouye’s catch. That personal foul sent the Jaguars into Seattle territory to begin their touchdown drive to a 10-0 lead.
The interception also forced Bobby Wagner to rush onto the field and play sooner than he and the defense expected to be coming out of halftime on that extra-chilly evening in North Florida. Wagner pulled his hamstring a couple plays later. The All-Pro linebacker hasn’t been the same since. Coincidence? Perhaps. But...
“Jimmy’s got to make that play, hopefully, for us, where it’s either him or nobody,” Carroll said in what for the sunny coach was an unusually pointed, by-name critique of a player on Dec. 11. “That’s kind of what we are counting on right there.”
Graham had another pass go off his hands that day when he got hit after the ball arrived in the first half. On the first play of Seattle’s final drive trying to tie in Jacksonville, he was wide open on the right sideline. He let Wilson’s pass go off his hands without a ton of extra effort. The Seahawks turned the ball over on downs a few plays later, losing a game they sure need to have won right now.
This past Sunday against the Rams, Graham had one catch on three targets, for minus-1 yard. He would have had two catches for 22 yards, but he dropped the ball after catching it and just before he hit the ground in the first quarter, after a hit by Los Angeles safety John Johnson. Instead of Seattle’s second-longest play of the day, the Seahawks punted. The Rams took over at midfield and scored again on their way to a 34-0 obliteration of the home team before halftime, and their 42-7 win.
He has seven drops this season, most among NFL tight ends and second-most among all receivers, one behind Jacksonville’s Marqise Lee.
Monday, Carroll’s assessment of Graham post-Rams wasn’t exactly the stuff that makes you think the Seahawks are going to back up the Brinks truck--maybe not even a gardening buggy--to keep him beyond this season.
“It’s really disappointing,” Carroll said, “because we really expect to get him involved.
“And there were other chances as you saw in the game. We missed one, a really big one that we might not have seen, so we were trying to go (to him). And it just didn’t happen.
“It’s frustrating because he’s a big part of us and he carries a lot of juice and energy for us when he makes his plays,” Carroll said.
“We need him active. And we certainly would like to get him active earlier.”
Including two years ago.
Graham’s debut season of a career-low two touchdowns with just 48 catches and 605 yards, his lowest totals since his rookie season of 2010 with the Saints, was cut short by his patellar injury in his knee in late November. His season-ending surgery affected him into September 2016, and really much of last season. He often did not practice. Yet he set a Seattle record for tight ends with 65 receptions and six touchdowns in 2016.
This season he had zero TDs for the first month, then nine in eight games ending with that reviving, 24-10 win over the Eagles on Dec. 3. It was the second-most prolific scoring stretch of his career, one TD fewer than he had over a similar span in 2013 for the Saints to earn his $40 million, four-year contract from New Orleans the following spring.
Now? Nada. Just like his offense. Seattle has scored as many points as you and I have in the first halves of its last two games.
Graham can become a free agent in March. He will turn 32 during the 2018 season. The Seahawks’ choices with him:
1. Re-sign him to an extension that would need to be more team-friendly than his $10 million charge against Seattle’s salary cap this season. Such a deal would have a large bonus of cash for him upfront with backloaded salaries that would be easy for the Seahawks to cut in later years, when Graham approaches his mid-30s.
2. Let him at least shop in free agency. They could then re-sign him more on their teams, after he sees what he can or cannot get at his age and with his recent, alarming history of disappearances during seasons.
3. Let him leave. At 6 feet 7 he remains a tantalizing and at-times lethal receiving option near the goal line, one that still makes NFL play callers drool. Graham is second in the NFL in receptions inside the 20-yard line (14), and second in catches inside the 10 (seven). Some team may on the often-frenzied, illogical free-agent market offer him $8-9 million per year. This option would net the Seahawks a midround draft choice, as compensation for losing an elite, unrestricted free agent. That would be one step recouping one of the picks they’ve traded away this season in the go-for-it-now deals to acquire left tackle Duane Brown from Houston and defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson from the New York Jets.
4. Use their one-per-year exclusive franchise tag on Graham to keep him for the 2018 season. That would likely come at $11.88 million, a 120-percent raise from his $7.9 million salary and $2 million prorated bonus for this year.
Per the league’s collective bargaining agreement franchise-tag player gets 120 percent of their previous year’s salary or the average of the top five base salaries at his position at the end of the restricted free agency period of that league year. Salary-cap charges for franchise tag are the previous year’s cap number, minus any workout bonus. Graham’s 2017 cap charge is $10 million, with a $100,000 workout bonus. That 120 percent of Graham’s 2017 salary (or, his $9.9 million cap charge, taking out the workout bonus) is currently higher than the top five salaries are scheduled to be among all NFL tight ends for 2018, and the five-year average of such salaries, by about $1.8 million. (Rob Gronkowski, Zach Ertz, Jordan Reed, Travis Kelce and Greg Olson are scheduled to have the top five tight-end pays in 2018). The tight-end market has flattened since Graham signed his $10 million-per-year deal in 2014, as the league’s offenses have featured multiple wide receivers in spread formations more than they have tight ends.
Nick Vannett, Seattle’s 2016 draft choice, is the only tight end the Seahawks have under contract for next season. No. 2 man Luke Willson could also become a free agent. He re-signed with a $1 million, one-year deal last spring. The Seahawks let him do option 2 above. He shopped and did not like what he was finding elsewhere, then returned to Seattle at a reduced cost.
As their uncharacteristic December swoon has highlighted, the Seahawks have many other priorities than to spend $11.88 million--or perhaps even approaching that--in 2018 on Graham. Re-signing Richardson to anchor the run defense that needs one. Again fixing the broken offensive line beyond the upgrade of Brown. Acquiring ready replacements for the aging, breaking down defense. That’s just the start of the Seahawks’ to-do list for an offseason that may be coming sooner for Seattle than in any of the last six winters.
These last two games for Graham may help determine how much the Seahawks, or anyone else in the league, decide to spend on him next year.
Then again, the previous two games may have already made that decision for them.