When the New Orleans Saints arrived at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Sunday morning, they were pretty certain they would have wide receiver Lance Moore back after missing three games with a hand injury.
They weren’t so sure about star tight end Jimmy Graham, who injured his left foot in their most recent game on Oct. 13 and only practiced once this week on a limited basis Friday.
But a little more than two hours before the Saints went against the Buffalo Bills, Graham showed Payton that he could play and be effective. Then, he went out and caught three passes for 37 yards with two touchdowns in a 35-17 beating of the Bills.
As if he had to convince his head coach even more, Graham punctuated both touchdowns with his usual celebratory dunk over the crossbar to the delight of 72,405 fans.
“Yeah, I still dunked it … but I jumped off my right foot,” Graham said with a smile. “I can do both. I jumped off my right foot and dunked with my left (hand). There will never be a moment I won’t dunk it.”
Maybe that convinced Payton that he indeed was ready after he was put through a series of pregame drills by Payton before getting the OK to be one of the team’s 46 active players.
When asked if the turning point for him came Friday when he did some light running, Graham said the moment really came when Payton worked him out on the field long before the opening kickoff.
“Sean was out there running around with me at 9:30 (a.m.), and I had to go (and perform) to play,” Graham said. “They had their game plan for me and how they wanted to approach it. I was just trying to do all I could to minimize the pain and let it heal.”
Payton said after the game that Graham couldn’t further damage the foot.
“It’s a foot injury, and it’s one that didn’t involve swelling,” Payton said. “So the risk of any re-injury is no different today than it would be three weeks from today, seven weeks from today, or 10 weeks from today.
“It was just a matter of can he function? Can he move in and out of a cut?” he added. “He was able to do that during the pregame workout.”
“There was no big risk that this could happen, and I would be out for the rest of the season,” Graham said. “It was really how much pain I could endure, and I do pretty well with that. It’s going to hurt, but football hurts.”
Graham entered the game on the Saints’ second play of their opening drive and caught a 9-yard pass from Drew Brees near the end of the first quarter, then had touchdown catches of 15 and 13 yards in the second and third periods, respectively.
The first came when he beat Bills safety Da’Norris Searcy, extending the Saints’ four-point lead to 11 at 21-10 with 30 seconds to play in the first half.
In the third quarter, he caught a short pass from Brees and was able to extend his right hand and ball just across the goal line as safety Jarius Byrd desperately tried to keep him out of the end zone.
As a result, he was effective enough even though he didn’t get as many snaps as he normally would.
“We kept him up and put him in a certain number of packages, but not his normal snap count,” Payton said. “But it worked well and he handled it well.”
Moore also made a triumphant return as he caught three passes for 34 yards after being inactive for the past three games with a hand injury.
Moore’s first reception turned into a 15-yard touchdown from Brees, who also threw TD passes of 69 and 42 yards to rookie wide receiver Kenny Stills, when he slipped a tackle by safety Nickell Robey and dashed into the end zone.
“It feels great any time you come off an injury and you get a chance to get out there,” said Moore, who had four catches in three games before being injured. “You don’t really know how it’s going to shake out. You don’t really know when you’ll get in the game and you don’t know how the touches are going to come.
“I’m always hoping to be involved early,” he added. “It doesn’t matter that I’m coming off an injury, I always want touches. The earlier the better for me. Thankfully, I got a touch early and was able to score.”