The Seahawks just can’t win on Monday Night Football — or hell, ever — without pissing off the entire world. A couple of controversial moments involving everyone’s favorite villain, Richard Sherman, stoked the outrage of Twitter in the immediate aftermath of the final. That’s a bit of a shame: It was, in fact, a great game.
Seattle’s thrilling 31–25 victory over the Bills was one of the best and most hard-fought games we’ve seen in prime time this season. It featured 703 total yards between the two teams, all kinds of scoring, a great Buffalo comeback, Shady McCoy breaking ankles like he was Tim Hardaway, and a couple of magicians at quarterback with Tyrod Taylor and Russell Wilson making unbelievable plays. It’s unfortunate, then, that the Sherman controversies, which represent so much of what’s wrong with the NFL, overshadowed the most irrefutable, this-is-why-we-love-sports development to come out of that secretly awesome game: Jimmy Graham’s production following his return from a patellar tendon tear — an injury formerly known to be a de facto death sentence for the career of a professional athlete. Graham has returned to elite status, and it’s one of the most phenomenal things that has happened in the NFL this season.
2015 was something of a lost season for Graham. The superstar tight end that had caught 51 touchdowns in five years as a Saint struggled to integrate himself into Seattle’s offensive attack in his first season as a Seahawk, and head coach Pete Carroll and GM John Schneider’s decision to trade starting center Max Unger and a first-round pick to acquire the talented playmaker was increasingly met with derision. Pundits and fans questioned why the Seahawks weren’t effectively utilizing Graham, why they were asking him to block, and why they weren’t targeting him more frequently in the red zone. In the end, he wound up catching just 48 passes and two touchdowns in 11 games before suffering the patellar tendon injury on a jump ball in the end zone against the Steelers in Week 12. In that moment, and all throughout the offseason, there was a real fear we might have witnessed the play that effectively ended Graham’s career.
The 6-foot-7 tight end came into this season as something of an afterthought. Gone was any expectation of star-level production. The overriding assumption was that Graham wouldn’t be ready to play in September and that he’d start the year on the PUP list. Anything the Seahawks could get from him upon his return would just be a bonus.
Hell, the Seahawks offense didn’t really even look like it needed him anyway. Russell Wilson and Seattle’s offensive explosion last season continued unchecked after Graham’s injury in Week 12. The Seahawks finished the year on an absolute tear. Wilson threw 16 touchdowns to just one pick over the last five games (four of which resulted in wins), and Doug Baldwin and Tyler Lockett, the new stars of the passing game, had emerged.
But Graham shocked pretty much everyone when he started the season on the active roster just nine months removed from surgery. He continued to blow minds by putting together a couple of 100-yard receiving games for Seattle in its Week 3 and 4 wins over the 49ers and Jets. But it wasn’t until Monday night’s mess of a great game against the Bills that we truly saw the old Graham — the guy who had become one of the best red zone threats in the world, the guy whose trademark goal post dunks sparked a leaguewide rule change on celebrations — make his return.
The Seahawks tight end caught eight passes, and all but one went for double-digit yardage. They added up to 103 yards and two touchdowns — both miraculous one-handed grabs — that sparked the Seattle offense in a huge win at home.
Wilson targeted Graham all over the field. Their first touchdown connection came on a wheel route up the sideline, and showed Wilson’s trust in him as the Seahawks quarterback heaved what looked to be a prayer toward the corner of the end zone. Graham calmly reeled it in with one hand, dragging his second foot inbounds.
Wilson also looked at him as a dump-off option on a pair of bootleg passes. On the first, Graham rumbled for 17 yards, and on the second, Graham hurdled a Bills defender to pick up 15.
Graham was a threat up the seam for Wilson, and this catch with 1:45 left in the first half was a key third-down conversion.
That set up his second touchdown grab on a simple seam route up the numbers. Wilson threw it up to Graham despite the fact that he was bracketed by a couple of defenders, and once again, the big playmaker corralled it with one hand.
Graham is going to be an important player for the Seahawks down the stretch, because he gives Wilson two things that he’s never really had in the Seahawks passing game: (1) a big, athletic target up the seam and over the middle of the field, and (2) a big go-up-and-get-it touchdown maker in the red zone. Baldwin is one of the best route runners in the NFL, and Lockett is as shifty as they come, but neither has the pure size or body control to box out defenders and make tough, contested catches like Graham can.
The former Saint has returned from the dead to find himself a fixture in Seattle’s offense. He’s second among tight ends in the league with 545 receiving yards, has caught three touchdowns, and should only get more involved as the season goes on.
Seattle’s offense has struggled badly this season to produce yards and points as they have tried to overcome both Wilson’s myriad injuries and the complete lack of a run game (which picked up just 33 yards on 12 attempts Monday night). But Wilson is getting closer to full speed, and Graham is looking like the player he once was. Maybe you were too preoccupied with Sherman’s antics to appreciate the kind of offensive performance the Seahawks produced on Monday night, but there’s still time. This could just be the beginning of their offensive breakout.