RENTON The Seahawks were in the middle of their only true threat to score a touchdown last weekend at Los Angeles. Jimmy Graham ended up having nothing to do with it.
Seattle didn’t score a TD then, or at all while losing 9-3 in their lowest-scoring game in five years.
As the first quarter became the second last Sunday at the Memorial Coliseum, the Seahawks had third and goal at the 2 trailing 3-0. They aligned with their wide receivers to the left and Graham as the only receiver on the right, tight on the end of the line. The Rams shifted their safeties and linebackers to the formation’s strength, Seattle’s left. That left Graham, the only receiver on the right side, versus Rams cornerback Trumaine Johnson, the only defensive back over there. Johnson was a couple yards off the line and outside of Graham at the snap.
I saw the set up. I knew -- we all know -- the Seahawks traded two-time Pro Bowl center Max Unger plus a first-round draft choice in 2015 for Graham just for this situation: to let the $40 million tight end with wide-receiver speed and basketball-player height and athleticism go get balls in mismatches in the red zone for touchdowns. So from 90 rows up atop the Coliseum in the press box I trained by binoculars on Graham, expecting his first score since he tore the patellar tendon in his knee Nov. 29.
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I zoomed in on Graham’s route, off the line and about 4 yards into the end zone. Just as he was about to go into his break outside, isolated on Johnson with a 5-inch height advantage on the Ram, he and Johnson stopped. Turned out, the ball was out. Russell Wilson had thrown quickly to the opposite, strong side, to a covered Jermaine Kearse. Lamarcus Joyner, Los Angeles’ other cornerback, broke up the pass. The Rams forced the tying field goal instead of allowing the go-ahead score. Seattle never got closer than 27 yards from the Rams’ goal line again.
Not only did Wilson not wait for Graham to make his cut on Johnson, for Graham to get his back turned so he could see the ball, the quarterback never looked Graham’s way on the play. I turned to my News Tribune colleague Dave Boling in the press box and asked if Wilson had been forced to throw so quickly by another Rams pass rush. He said the Rams were coming but, no, Wilson was not under extreme duress and had obviously made up his mind from the snap to target Kearse.
The play symbolized for many what they see as Wilson and the Seahawks’ offense still not fully utilizing Graham were he can be most successful: near the goal line and in the end zone. That’s where he was so successful for years in New Orleans while as the NFL’s most prolific pass-catching tight end/hybrid wide receiver for years.
I asked offensive coordinator and play caller Darrell Bevell following Wednesday’s practice about the play and Wilson’s decision to not look at Graham.
“Russell went to the right place on that one,” Bevell said.
“The way that play was set up was the right place where he went.... Without giving it away, we’re taking a look at what the defense is doing and it gives the quarterbacks some answers. Where he went was a really good answer. Does that mean if we have a one-on-one with Jimmy that that’s not something we want to do? No, that’s not the case. But the play that was called, that’s where it dictated to go.”
I asked Bevell if he feels Graham is at the forefront of Wilson’s mind in the red zone.
“I think he definitely knows that he’s out there. There’s not a question that he knows that he’s out there,” Bevell said. “There were a couple of designed things, obviously for him at that game, and sometimes they show up, sometimes they don’t. If you call them with a certain coverage in mind and if you get that coverage it works out perfect. If they play something different, sometimes you’ll have to go to a different place with the ball. There’s a lot of things that can go into that.”
Bevell mentioned upon being asked that some of this issue is perhaps the time Graham has missed since November recovering from the tricky knee injury and surgery. That Wilson may not know through practice trials exactly where the tight end’s “catch radius” exactly is on each ball and route because they haven’t worked on it consistently and have only been together since March 2015.
“Yeah, that’s another part of those nuances and learning guys and learning those players,” he said. “With Jimmy missing as much time as he has, the practice reps where (Wilson) might say, ‘OK, here’s a time to try that and throw that in there,’ then that’s where you’re able to learn those nuances.
“In a game, it might not be the exact time that you just want to learn and say, ‘Hey, let me just see if I can get this one to him and if he can catch it.’ Those are all thing that we’re continuing to work with.”
Those answers were better than the one I got from coach Pete Carroll earlier Wednesday when I asked the same question of him: is Graham enough at the forefront of Wilson’s mind in the red zone?
“Well, you were 90 rows away so it was hard for you to see what was happening on that play,” Carroll said.
Carroll instead answered about Graham having four targets and three catches while playing 55 of the Seahawks’ 67 offensive snaps at Los Angeles. Graham played only 17 snaps the previous week, the opening win over Miami, his first game back from the knee surgery.
“Jimmy is going to be a big factor for us,” Carroll said. “He played 50 plays last week and that means he’s playing a regular amount of football. Now that he’s back in there, we can’t keep him out of the forefront. He’s just that good of a player. The week before he played 12. So this was a big jump for him and I think he, as well as the coaches, think it’s back to normal now. He’ll play a lot, he’ll be a big factor that we can count on.
“Going into that game we weren’t sure if he’d be able to hold on to it. He did a marvelous job so we’re ready to go with him.”