Lewis: Saints, Jimmy Graham need to put dispute behind them

Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS -- New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham Show caption
Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS -- New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham

Stephen Burbank, the arbitrator in the Jimmy Graham case, was standing in the lobby of a Metairie hotel following Graham’s grievance hearing two weeks ago, politely declining to discuss anything about the case other than maybe acknowledging who he was.

So, trying another tactic, your intrepid correspondent inquired of Burbank about his then-boss, Mike Fitts, the dean of the University of Pennsylvania Law School who took over as president at Tulane on Tuesday.

Burbank obliged, and in the course of the conversation, it was mentioned that outgoing Tulane President Scott Cowen was the one who successfully challenged the BCS, Burbank gave a quizzical look and asked, “What’s the BCS?”

Which goes to demonstrate the depth of the esteemed Professor Burbank’s football knowledge.

Or lack thereof.

Of maybe he’s just a good lawyer.

Whatever, Burbank’s ruling which was made public on Wednesday (Wasn’t it supposed to be on Thursday? Does the absent-minded professor not know what day of the week it is?) was a legalistic one, using the overwhelming evidence and testimony concerning the spirit of the wording in the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement vs. the “essentialist (that’s “literal” for the less-educated among us) wording” of the clause Graham claimed made him deserving to be paid as a franchise wide receiver rather than as a tight end because of where he lined up a majority of the time.

“The objective in any question of the interpretation of a written contract, of course, is to determine ‘What is the intention of the parties as derived from the language employed?’” was one of the precedents (from Hartford Accident & Indemnity Co. vs. Wesolowski) Burbank referenced.

Wow. We haven’t heard legalize used like that since John Houseman in “The Paper Chase.”

But the point is made.

Jimmy Graham was drafted as a tight end and has been considered a tight end by everyone, including himself via his Twitter and Facebook accounts. So trying to use a phrase about the size of the tender depending on a minimalistic definition proved to be a loophole that Burbank wasn’t buying.

Maybe Graham, his agent, Jimmy Sexton, the NFL Players Association and their assorted lawyers knew that was a Hail Mary with Aqib Talib and Richard Sherman defending the end zone.

But you can’t blame a guy for trying, especially with $5 million at stake.

That’s the difference between the franchise level for tight ends and wide receivers.

But it’s pretty well agreed that, barring a successful appeal, before the July15 deadline for Graham to accept the Saints’ tender the two sides will agree to a deal that will make Graham the highest paid tight end in league history at somewhere between $9 million-$10 million a year.

Which is a nice chunk of change for someone who played only a single season of college football and a 1,000 percent raise over his rookie contract.

This isn’t the old days when Tom Benson and Jim Finks played hardball when negotiating with players like Bobby Hebert and Pat Swilling. And then what?

Sean Payton’s testimony that Graham is, as the Saints see it, a tight end, was apparently one of the major determining factors’ in Burbank’s ruling. The Saints coach certainly was cited enough.

We don’t how Payton really feels, but obviously he was doing the bidding of his superiors at taking the team’s side. That’s understandable.

But if and when a deal is struck, what effect will this have on the relationship between Graham and Payton, and its All-Pro player and the club in general?

While everyone will outwardly behave like professionals, it would only be human nature for some strong feelings to linger.

On the day that Payton testified in the hearing, Graham emerged from the room looking agitated, as any player would after hearing his coach argue the opposing side.

Whether Graham comes to training camp in a funk is up to him. He’s always been a model of decorum, so it’s unlikely.

But if Graham is still an unhappy camper three weeks from now, he would do well to remember that it’s been the Saints who saw the potential in the rawest of players and, with the considerable factors of Graham’s own character, talent and work ethic figured in, have molded him into the best pass-catching tight end in football.

Payton’s system and being fortunate enough to have Drew Brees as his quarterback have had a lot to do with that, too.

And Payton, if he hasn’t already, surely will convey the message to Graham that he is as highly valued as ever and that whatever went on before the arbitrator was strictly business. Maybe he’ll take Graham out for a round of golf at The Greenbriar.

However, there’s another school of thought that Graham’s value will diminish as the Saints make maximum use out of first-round draft pick Brandin Cooks while putting more emphasis on the running game and that the team should look on Graham in that light.

That well could be.

But wouldn’t having increased production from all aspects of the offense help produce a better team, one that many see making a Super Bowl run?

Isn’t that what it’s supposed to be all about?

Well yes. But as Professor Burbank put it in terms that fans and non-fans can understand, “This dispute is about money.”

And now, hopefully, it’s almost over.