Seattle Seahawks

‘Unbelievable’ Jimmy Graham arrives to revolutionize Seahawks’ passing game

New Seahawks tight end Jimmy Graham is ready to completely change a Seahawks offense that plodded at times last season.
New Seahawks tight end Jimmy Graham is ready to completely change a Seahawks offense that plodded at times last season. Staff photographer

There’s Jimmy Graham flying seaplanes with longtime Seahawks patriarch John Nordstrom, landing them this spring and summer in the San Juan Islands.

Oh, there’s Graham at Seahawks owner Paul Allen’s Experience Music Project museum at Seattle Center on Labor Day weekend, using his cross-arm method of drumming.

And there he is inside Seahawks headquarters before another team meeting, posting up and shooting jump shots at the basketball hoop the team has in its main players’ auditorium. He’s showing off his skills as a power forward when he played for the University of Miami.

“Yeah, I lost today,” the Seahawks’ most skilled basketballer rued last month. “You know what it is? I’m 6-7, and the roof, they don’t let me get my arc on my shot. I felt like Shaq shooting.

“So yeah, I actually lost today.”

That’s the only thing Seattle’s new, superstar tight end has lost at since his trade in March from New Orleans.

Graham’s world is an exquisite place to be these days — polar opposite of the way he grew up in Goldsboro, North Carolina. The NFL’s most accomplished tight end since 2011 has a $40 million contract. He is a licensed pilot; he found out Seattle had traded two-time Pro Bowl center Max Unger and its first-round draft choice to the Saints to acquire him while he was sitting on a beach on the Gulf Coast of Florida. He had flown his six-seat Beechcraft Bonanza there — for lunch.

If Russell Wilson and the Seahawks’ offense does what they are planning to do beginning with Sunday’s opener at St. Louis, Graham’s world is about to get even better in 2015.

“This place has exceeded my expectations, by far,” Graham said of Seattle.

And he hasn’t even played a real game for his new team yet.

Seattle’s never had a tight end like Graham. At 6 feet, 7 inches and 270 pounds, he can simply out-jump and out-reach every defender on any field for any pass thrown even remotely close to him. When Wilson chucked one far over Graham’s head near the goal line during the third exhibition game last month at San Diego, the quarterback joked afterward he thought that was darn near impossible.

Graham’s physical dominance on smaller defensive backs is why he is the NFL’s most accomplished tight end since 2011, with 355 catches and 46 touchdowns. Why he is a three-time Pro Bowl selection and 2013 All-Pro. Why he is one of only seven players in league history to catch 50 touchdown passes in his first five seasons — his 51 was one behind Jerry Rice.

“Jimmy looks unbelievable,” Wilson said.

Much time, breath and ink have been spent the past few months on how well Wilson and Graham are bonding, how the timing on their routes and passes are going to be starting the season. Like he was with his good friend Drew Brees in New Orleans, Graham will line up all over Seattle’s formations: in the slot, outside wide, on a wing, tight as an end, often in two tight-end sets with Luke Willson.

Yet for all Graham will do, a more fundamental issue will be how successful a new, still-in-progress offensive line will be in pass protection. The line is starting three guys in three new positions as of three weeks ago: Drew Nowak at center, Justin Britt from right tackle to left guard and Garry Gilliam at right tackle.

If they can give Wilson time to find Graham down the field for big gains, defenses should not be able to stack nine or 10 men “in the box” near the line of scrimmage to defend Marshawn Lynch’s running without being burned by Graham deep.

Seattle was 20th in the league in touchdown percentage in the red zone last season, scoring TDs just 31 times in 60 trips (51.7 percent) inside the 20. It was 53.3 percent in 2013. No team in the league threw the ball fewer times in the red zone or overall last season than the Seahawks.

Since Wilson became its QB in 2012, Seattle has thrown just 54 percent of the time in the red zone. That’s 25th-most often in the league in that span.

Graham has 38 catches inside the red zone the past three seasons. No fewer than 28 of those (74 percent) have gone for touchdowns.

That’s why Graham is now in Seattle. He’s not going to get the 130 or so targets Brees gave him in New Orleans each year. But when Wilson really needs a completion or the Seahawks get near the goal line, the first option is going to be to No. 88.

And this season that’s not Tony Moeaki.

“He can stretch the field, catch the ball. Big target in the red zone, which will be huge for us,” Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said of Graham. “That may be one of the biggest things, just the size we have down there when things start to get tight.”

The Seahawks have gone out of their way to make Graham feel at home already in their run-based offense. Far beyond the field, too.

One of the first calls Graham got after the one on that Florida beach from Saints coach Sean Payton telling him he’d been traded was from Wilson. In May, Wilson dropped everything, skipped a week of organized team activities — the first time he’d missed any practice in his four years as a Seahawk — and flew to Florida to be with Graham for the funeral of his mentor and a woman he considers like a mother to him, Tamara Meyerson.

“It’s been incredible. Clearly I have watched him from afar as a player and seeing his growth over the years, but to walk in the building and see his character …,” Graham said of Wilson. “Getting to experience who he is as a man has been awesome.

“What he did obviously meant a lot, not only to myself, but also to my extended family. He and the entire Seahawks organization were behind myself and my family.”

As soon as Graham got to Seahawks headquarters in March, coach Pete Carroll talked with him about his past. Carroll knew Graham’s father dropped him off as a 9-year old at a social-services office. After that failed to find him a new home, his mother left him in a state home for foster children and orphans in Goldsboro.

Carroll knows how Graham grew through crying himself to sleep into a largely self-made basketball star who averaged more than 20 points and 13 rebounds a game in high school. That led to four seasons of hoops at Miami.

Graham played four seasons for the Hurricanes, becoming one of eight players to block 100 shots in a career. He played one season of football at Miami, starring as an athletic, leaping, largely indefensible tight end. The Saints took him in the third round of the 2010 draft.

“Literally, when he sat me down just talking about my basketball career and going back and talking about all these things he’s heard about me, I could tell that he’s a detail-oriented person,” Graham said of Carroll. “He knew so much about me — half the stuff I forgot about. That really means something, really to anybody, that he would take the time to really learn all of these individual things about me.

“He literally called about almost every person that I’ve ever been involved with in my life to find out, one way or another, how I was as a person and how I was driven. That truly meant a lot.”

The Seahawks have spent five months laying the foundation with the man they believe will redefine their often-slogging passing game. They have forged an immediate bond and trust.

Now it’s time for Graham to put that to use on the field for the first time for Seattle.

“I know on third and 10, third and 12, that’s where I’m going to earn my money,” Graham said “I know in the red zone, you know, I’m bigger than most down there.

“There’s a lot of matchup problems. And with Marshawn in the backfield and their safeties play too flat, I just see a ton of opportunities there.”

Related stories from Tacoma News Tribune