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Jimmy Graham Is the NFL's Next Great Comeback Story

Patellar tendon tears have a long history of ending NFL careers, but the Seattle Seahawks tight end isn't just surviving his comeback season. He's thriving.
Photo by Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

The year was 2012, and nobody believed in Adrian Peterson coming back quickly. Minnesota's star running back had tore his ACL and MCL thanks to a hit from DeJon Gomes in Week 16 the previous season, and his long-term prospects seemed bleak.

It was the first season in Peterson's career that he hadn't run for 1,000 yards—he also missed time with a high-ankle sprain—and at age 27, he was no longer a young and spry back. Even though he had just signed a long-term contract extension, we suddenly weren't sure if Peterson would continue chasing the records his talent indicated were within his reach.


Less than nine months after his injury, Peterson ran for 84 yards and two touchdowns in Week 1 against the Jaguars. And then he really stepped it up. Over Minnesota's last ten games of the 2012 season, he'd be held under 100 yards rushing once, while rushing over 150 yards in seven of them. He finished the year with 2,097 rushing yards—eight away from the all-time record—and was named MVP. He was, in every sense of the word, a complete freak of nature. Knees broken up like Peterson's don't respond that quickly. Sometimes they end careers.

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Over the years, the enthusiasm caused by Peterson's comeback has inspired a lot of misplaced optimism about other injured players, from "Robert Griffin III will get healthy and be great, and this year we mean it," to "Marcus Lattimore can overcome his devastating injury at South Carolina and become a star." We always want to be bullish about injury, even when the harsh reality tells us otherwise.

That's why, when a player proves reality wrong, it's worth celebrating like we celebrated Peterson. And so, this year, enter Seahawks tight end Jimmy Graham.

Graham tore his patellar tendon on this play against the Steelers in Week 11 last season. Patellar tendon tears have a long history of ending NFL careers. In football, a career can change on every snap. And on this one, the questions around Graham changed entirely. It was no longer "Can the Seahawks change their offense to fit Graham's skill set?" It was no longer hacky jokes about how offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell seemed unwilling to use Graham for anything but blocking. It wasn't even about justifying the first-round pick the Seahawks gave up for Graham.


Instead, the new question was "Will Jimmy Graham ever play again?" And, if he did: "Will he recover enough explosiveness to ever be the same player he once was?" At 29, an age when more NFL athletes are consigned to the street than signed to a contract extension, had we just watched all that was left of Graham's career?

As you know, since I wrote about it, the answer was no. But Graham isn't just surviving on the Seahawks this season—he's thriving.

Seattle started out this year needing offense in the worst way. The offensive line is still a jumbled-together collection of unready draft picks and refugees from terrible units of the 2010s. (Is that JaMarcus Webb?) Russell Wilson has been hurt twice, spraining his knee, and still isn't running very well. Speedster Tyler Lockett has dealt with a PCL sprain that has limited him early in the season. Outside of Doug Baldwin, the only receiver to answer this call has been Graham.

After finding only five targets in his first two weeks—in two games where the Seahawks managed to score just 15 points—Graham has been awesome ever since. Among tight ends, Graham is sixth in Football Outsiders' DVOA and DYAR statistics. That means that not only has he been efficient with his touches; he's also carried the load. He's had the seventh-most targets among tight ends despite being slowly phased into the offense.

On the field, the best compliment you can give Graham is that he doesn't look any different. On their game-tying drive in overtime against the Cardinals, Seattle ran the entire offense through Graham, targeting him four times. He caught three of them for 35 yards.


And as you can see on this play, Graham is still able to take a licking at the point of contact and hold on to the ball. He's not quite as sudden off the line as he used to be back when he was with the Saints, but Graham's skill set was always going to translate well to the old-man game, where his size and catch radius means he can play with or without his old quick-twitch speed.

We're probably not going to remember 2016 as the year of Jimmy Graham—right now, we're probably headed towards it being the Year NFL Fans Started Hating The Product, or, optimistically, The Tom Brady Revenge show. I suppose there's still time for Graham to go on a Peterson-esque run and start throwing up 150-yard, two-touchdown lines left and right, but that probably won't happen. He may have to settle for merely being a very deserving Comeback Player of the Year, assuming someone higher-profile like Tony Romo doesn't heist it.

Nevertheless, what Graham has done in overcoming his torn patellar tendon is remarkable. He's been a key part of Seattle's offense, not missing much in the way of playing time, almost from Day 1. Victor Cruz, who also suffered from a torn patellar tendon, is showing up some this year, but he took practically two calendar years to get to where Graham is now.

I appreciate you reaching out to me man, I'm gonna take these words and use them as I travel down this road to recovery — Derek Newton (@D_Newt75)October 26, 2016

As medical science continues to get better, so does rehab hope for great players. Graham's astonishing recovery has pushed the upper boundary just a little bit further.

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