Saints push to get Jimmy Graham back into offense

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham scores a touchdown against Miami Dolphins cornerback Brent Grimes in the Saints' 38-17 win Sept. 30 in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Graham had 37 catcheds for 593 yards and six touchdowns in his first five games before being shut down by the Patriots on Oct. 13. Show caption
Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham scores a touchdown against Miami Dolphins cornerback Brent Grimes in the Saints' 38-17 win Sept. 30 in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Graham had 37 catcheds for 593 yards and six touchdowns in his first five games before being shut down by the Patriots on Oct. 13.

“It’s gradually gotten more difficult. I’m just going to take what they give me.” Jimmy graham, Saints tight end

Last week’s off week gave Saints fans time to recover from an emotional, last-second loss nearly two Sundays ago at New England.

That’s the problem.

It’s allowed Who Dats plenty of time to over think Jimmy Graham’s no-catch performance against Bill Belichick and Co.

Holy Fleur de lis!

While losing is never fun, and neither is being roughed up by a cornerback whose helmet barely reaches your shoulder pads, Graham will be a better player after his awful game at Gillette Stadium.

No player, no Hall of Famer, scores every game, reaches the quarterback every Sunday, converts every field goal. That’s not the NFL. That’s video games.

“Jimmy is going to make his plays every game, and I think it’s on us to find creative ways to get him in the positions we want him in order to make those plays,” said quarterback Drew Brees, who this season has passed for 1,958 yards and 14 touchdowns. Graham has proved to be his top target.

Graham is too big, too talented, too intimidating — too motivated — to allow four quarters to ruin all that he’s accomplished in his rise from college basketball rebounder to All-Pro tight end.

Not that he needs financial motivation, but he’s on the verge of a big payday, one that’s bound to occur as well as his many still-to-come record-breaking performances.

His controlled rage, the way he signals his first downs, flexes his biceps, two-hand dunks footballs over goalposts, showcase a young superstar who is poised to learn from outings good and bad.

Every opposing defense for the rest of 2013 will be able to mimic New England’s efforts. Even the Patriots aren’t guaranteed it would work again. This is an offensive league, and Saints coach Sean Payton likely treated last week like an in-season retreat, tinkering with ways to keep Graham involved.

He has to. The Saints’ sixth-ranked offense, even with Brees, is garden-variety without Graham.

We know this because of what it wasn’t able to accomplish with Graham jammed by New England’s Aqib Talib at the line of scrimmage, re-routing Graham’s paths around the field like a traffic cop before Graham left with a foot injury, which is a question mark entering Sunday’s game against Buffalo (3-4).

We know because Graham’s 37 catches for 593 yards and six touchdowns through the first six games of his contract season are more than Marques Colston and rookie Kenny Stills’ combined receiving efforts. We know because the Saints (5-1) have no running game to rely on. They must win through the air.

Back to Graham.

Before he faced the Patriots, Graham said he didn’t welcome the extra defensive attention.

“It’s gradually gotten more difficult,” he said, grinning. “I’m just going to take what they give me.”

That strategy must change. New England became the first time to shut Graham out since the first month of his rookie season of 2010 by giving him nothing.

“You don’t come in and say, ‘We just want to contain him,’ Patriots safety Devin McCourty said after the Oct. 13 game. “ ‘We’ve got to try to shut him down. That’s the only way we win this game.’

“We knew if he had the type of games he had been having, we’d have no shot.”

Two weeks earlier, Atlanta tight end Tony Gonzalez caught 12 passes for 149 yards and two touchdowns during a 30-23 win over New England.

Graham expected this kind of extra attention. That’s what happens when you’re too good of a pass catcher to be referred to as a receiver. Ask Chicago’s Charles Tillman and Jamar Taylor of Miami, both of whom had long gamedays against Graham. Arizona safety Yeremiah Bell would agree, as would others.

They’ve all looked out of place, off-balanced trying to defend a 6-feet, 7-inch target who until the New England game appeared to be “unstoppable,” as Graham was called when his season’s work was discussed earlier this month on ESPN’s Numbers Never Lie.

What if the Saints played against Talib every week?

Now, that might be a problem.