A Seahawks tight end on Wednesday was recalling his motivation to hurdle over a defensive back last Sunday. The impressive feat qualified as a highlight of a game distinguished by plodding offenses.
But there was a surprising twist to the play. The hurdler wasn’t Jimmy Graham, the acrobatic tight end the Seahawks acquired from the Saints to make precisely that kind of play.
The hurdler was Luke Willson, listed as Graham’s backup on the Hawks depth chart. Willson is an accomplished athlete in his own right – he was a Toronto Blue Jays minor-league prospect before deciding to concentrate on football – but Willson understands he’s not the game-changer Graham is supposed to be.
But there Willson was against the 49ers, open in the flat to turn a short second-quarter pass from Russell Wilson into a 19-yard gain. And where was Graham?
Somebody occupying a No. 88 Seahawks jersey was on the field for the brunt of the action against San Francisco, but it’s difficult to believe that guy was Graham.
Instead of creating the down-field mismatches that earned him first-team All-Pro recognition with the New Orleans Saints, the Hawks game plan kept Graham tethered to an offensive line that needs all the help it can get – even if the help means miscasting a dynamic 6-foot-7 receiving target as an indifferent blocker.
Since the University of Miami product entered the NFL in 2010, he has blistered defenses with 100-yard receiving games on 17 occasions. Graham caught one pass on Sunday for 1 yard.
Through two weeks, he’s got four receptions for 9 yards, and there’s a possibility an ankle sprain will keep his 2017 numbers at a wince-worthy minimum.
“He’s not going to practice today,” coach Pete Carroll said Wednesday before his team began preparing for the Tennessee Titans. “We’ll wait a couple of days, see how he’s doing. He’s got the same injury as before.”
After the Seahawks 12-9 victory over the 49ers, Carroll reported that Graham “banged his knee.” Now it’s his ankle.
Graham could clear up some of the confusion by making himself available to the media now and then, but his words are as infrequent as his first-down catches.
“It will be fine,” Carroll said Sunday, referring to Graham’s meager contribution to an offense some once believed would be built around him. “I’m not worried about it at all.”
Carroll’s confidence in resolving his team’s tight-end quandary might be genuine, but he and general manager John Schneider will have lots of reasons to worry when Graham’s contract expires in a few months.
His 2017 base salary is $7.9 million. If the Seahawks choose to identify him as a franchise player, Graham’s 2018 salary projects to be at least $11.8 million.
Something else to consider: Graham turns 31 on Nov. 24. Investing a minimum of $11.8 million in a 31-year old with four catches for 9 yards in two games fulfills any definition of absurd.
Complicating the situation is Willson’s imminent free agency. He signed a one-year deal for 2017, and, like Graham, he’s less a prototypical tight end than a wide receiver often positioned immediately adjacent to one of the tackles.
But that’s down the road. For now, Willson is a backup prepared to start – and as clueless about Graham’s status as everybody else.
“Honestly, I don’t know the situation with Jimmy,” Willson said. “Whatever the situation is, on offense we’ve got a lot of issues we’ve got to iron out, and I’ve got to do whatever is asked of me.
“I haven’t really heard whether Jimmy is going or not going. I’m just going into Wednesday, doing my thing, and going from there.”
As for the hurdle – the 6-foot-5, 254-pound tight end casually jumping over would-be tackler Jaquiski Tartt, a 6-1 strong safety – the good-natured Willson required no encouragement to gloat.
“What can I say? I’ve got a little bounce in me,” he said. “Everybody won’t be sleeping on me these days.”
If only the same could be said of the starting tight end, the former All-Pro and potential Hall of Famer who two years ago took his talent to Seattle, if not his heart.
After 9 receiving yards in two games, you’ve got to wonder where that is.