Situation Impossible is a weekly column focusing on the most devastating injury of the week in the NFL. "Next Man Up" is a catchy phrase, but some players are harder to replace than others. Here we investigate the alternatives on hand and how a team reacted or will react to having to replace star-level performance.
Injured player: Jimmy Graham, an ineffective blocking tight end who was also a great pass-catcher when Seattle let him be.
Injury and diagnosis: This is, unfortunately, a pretty grisly injury. Graham tore his patellar tendon trying to catch a ball in the end zone against Pittsburgh. The diagnosis can be measured in months rather than weeks, and Graham was immediately placed on IR.
With very smooth rehab, Graham could be cleared for football-related activity in 5-6 months. But rehab rarely smooth.
— Jene Bramel (@JeneBramel)November 30, 2015
This is the same injury that has been so difficult for Victor Cruz to recover from—both the injury itself, which is a bad one, and the cascade injuries that follow down the line. It's hard to build up strength in the leg without the patellar tendon, and getting back on the field is only the first step of in a complicated multi-part rehabilitation process.
The patellar helps an athlete with explosiveness and range of motion. For a pass-catcher, who needs both of these things, blowing out this tendon is about as concerning an injury as there is.
What's missing: While we have definitely seen a drop in Graham's volume as a receiver, especially in the end zone, his effectiveness basically has been unchanged.
The Seahawks have lost their second most effective receiver. You might joke about how offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell probably won't even notice that Graham is gone, but this does put a bit of a rip in the team's passing game. Remember: these guys pined for the star piece to put this passing game back on the map. I know better than to use the word "pedestrian," for fear that Doug Baldwin finds my home address and yells at me for an hour, but Seattle's remaining receivers don't exactly inspire sleepless nights for opposing defensive coordinators.
What the team will do: Luke Willson, a fine tight end on pure pedigree and size/speed combo, will take over as the starter. He'll be perfectly acceptable, as he was last season. Willson actually received a surprising amount of deeper targets last season, mostly off play-action. He won't be the kind of high-volume receiver Graham is, of course, but nobody is expecting that.
Chase Coffman was signed to fill the hole at tight end on the roster. He's as journeyman as a tight end can get—the Ben Hartsock of the 2010s.
Adjusting our expectations: Despite the Graham injury, Seattle is still in pretty good shape to make the playoffs. Thanks to fading presumptive NFC Wild Card challengers St. Louis and Atlanta, the Seahawks currently find themselves holding the sixth seed.
Football Outsiders gives them a 76.4 percent chance to make the playoffs. Look, it's been a long season for Seattle—a frustrating year of fits and starts, of blown fourth-quarter leads and questionable coaching. As long as Atlanta's pass offense is in shambles, though, Seattle is the only team in the NFC Wild Card race that actually deserves to be there. Chicago and Tampa are restoration projects with a little early success. The NFC East is in shambles. The Saints are 4-7.
Without Graham, Seattle will take a bit of a hit in the passing game, but that was never this team's buttered bread; a certain Super Bowl play call may have helped you surmise as much. Thomas Rawls has been a find in replacing Marshawn Lynch at running back, and Seattle can build a play-action pass game off their run attack as long as Russell Wilson is still alive. They're fine, more or less.
Long-term with Graham is an interesting story. The Seattle Times has already quoted Pete Carroll as saying Graham will be back next season:
Here's the pessimistic version of this story: Graham comes back next season with two years and $29 million left on his contract, none of which is guaranteed. He's still tall and physically dominant, but without his speed he becomes less of a seam threat and more of a contested-catch West Coast option. Does that sound like the kind of player you build an offense around? Especially if the player in question is about to hit 30?
I certainly wouldn't rule out a full recovery for Graham—he's a marvelous athlete—but it's not hard to envision a scenario in which this injury not only shuts down Graham's productive career but also leaves Seattle without much of a boost next season. Keep in mind that since Percy Harvin already did this, Seattle will have spent two first-round picks and a boatload of cap space over the past couple seasons with little to show for it.
You can commend Seattle for going for the knockout punch while they had the Russell Wilson contract advantage. But if you miss too many of those punches, eventually you're just another contender.
If Graham's career as a dominant playmaker is over, Seattle is going to need to find a way to even the score next season—preferably without much of a cap hit.