Few places outside of professional sports so publicly commodify their employees, their value conveniently charted on axes of production versus salary-cap implications and draft/trade equity.
Yet even the best investments sometimes take time to mature and start paying the hoped-for dividends.
For the Seahawks, Jimmy Graham in the past two weeks has resembled the game-changing, mismatch-creating tight end who redefined the nature of the position for the New Orleans Saints before coming to Seattle last season.
For Graham, the dividends are more personal. They’ve been earned during a painful eight-month knee rehabilitation, when the series of dark days spawned a greater appreciation for the game that had been taken from him, and for the men with whom he shares the locker room.
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With 12 catches for 213 yards in the past two games, in wins over San Francisco and the New York Jets, Graham is averaging 16.6 yards per catch (some four yards better than his career seasonal high) and is pulling in 73 percent of his targets, a number that also would be a career high.
In those games, he has caught passes by running past linebackers, over-powering cornerbacks and getting open against man-to-man, zones and double teams. He has pulled in passes that have been high and wide and sometimes fired at him like a weapon.
By doing so, the level of trust that quarterback Russell Wilson now has in Graham is manifested by targeting him whenever under heavy pressure or on the run because he knows that Graham is going to find the ball and come down with it.
The physical gifts of the 6-foot-7 Graham should not surprise. It’s why the Seahawks traded a 2015 first-round draft pick and All-Pro center Max Unger to New Orleans to get him. His production last season was solid but not as conspicuous as many expected.
He had a few big games but it never seemed as if his skills were fully utilized, and on Nov. 29, against Pittsburgh, he suffered the torn patellar tendon that ended his season.
The surgery left him immobilized for nearly three months. “It’s very humbling,” Graham explained when he returned to action in August. “But for me, I’ve learned patience … (and to) kind of embrace the process.”
There was another metaphorical embrace that took place during that time, between Graham and his teammates. Graham talked of how cornerback Richard Sherman came into the training room every day to check on him and encourage him.
And in return, so many Seahawks have expressed admiration for the dedication Graham showed with the pain and sweat it took to get back on the field.
When posting a picture of his celebration after scoring a touchdown this season, Graham texted a rundown of how many hours (6,072), days (253) and months (8) it took him to get “back on the field with my boys.”
The bond with one of those teammates, particularly, has become crucial to Graham’s on-field contributions. Graham and Wilson have become close on and off the field.
“Russ has been there for me through some tough times in my life,” Graham said about the difficult period over the last year and a half. “Personally, and on the field, he’s a guy who stood by me.”
The sense of being a part of a larger cooperative, a football family, seems very important to Graham. He doesn’t open up much with the press, being somewhat elusive in the locker room during the week and after games.
But his website offers clues to the private Graham, the one who was taken to a state-run group home in North Carolina when he was just 11, and for three years took beatings from aggressive older boys.
He tells of how he learned to focus on just getting through the day — “winning that day,” is what he called it. It’s an attitude that helped him get to the NFL, to become an All-Pro and to fight back after more than eight months of painful recuperation.
So his is a story of persistence and dedication. But those qualities are hard to chart on the cost/benefit graph.
Only Wilson, Sherman and Earl Thomas take up more salary-cap room than Graham. And his contract for next season carries no guarantees. So, as he nears his 30th birthday in November, the reality is that he’s also playing for his future.
Surely the Jimmy Graham of the last couple weeks is the one the Seahawks expected and paid for, and would benefit from having on hand well into the future.
The quality of his play, meanwhile, has helped the Hawks turn into the kind of team he’d hoped it would when he got here.
It seems that perfect intersection where the player is not so much a commodity but a crucial part of the whole, and winning isn’t just for that day, or for oneself, but for everyone on the team.