SEATTLE --Jimmy Graham's 2015 season ended in the north end zone of CenturyLink Field. Less than a year later, in that same end zone, the Seahawks tight end showed a national television audience that he is all the way back from the torn patellar tendon he suffered last November.
Graham, who missed most of training camp and all of the preseason while recovering from his injury, has been very good since building his way up to full playing time, but if there was any lingering doubt in anyone's mind that Jimmy Graham was back to being Jimmy Graham, he erased it with one hand tied behind his back in a 31-25 win over the Buffalo Bills on Monday Night Football.
Graham's stat line—eight catches, 103 yards, two touchdowns—is plenty impressive on paper, but those numbers don't begin to show how good Graham really was. Two of those catches, 17- and 18-yard touchdowns, both had to be made with one hand because Bills defensive backs were pinning his other arm down. Graham also picked up extra yardage on another catch by hurdling a Bills defensive back without breaking stride.
"Jimmy was phenomenal tonight. Gosh, what a game," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "What an incredible player and competitor and all of that. He just continues. Every game is a highlight film of catches. The first one was a one-hander with a guy pulling his arm out. The second one looked like another one-hander… He did a lot of great things tonight. Nothing more fun than watching a guy hurdle somebody like that, an athlete of that kind of stature, it was an extraordinary play. He was phenomenal tonight."
It takes tremendous physical skills to make the one-handed catches Graham made, not to mention two perfectly placed passes from quarterback Russell Wilson, but Graham said even more important on those plays is the motivation that his long road back from injury gives him on a daily basis.
"Honestly, when the ball's in the air, I think of my guys, I think of all days I had this offseason, all those moments I had when I wasn't out there," Graham said. "It's more of a want-to than anything. I just want that ball so bad that I'm going to do anything for it.
"For me it's one of those things where I cherish every second on this field, it doesn't matter what I'm doing out there, I love it because of how it was taken from me and at times not knowing if I'd get it back."
Graham and the Seahawks were confident that he would be back on the field at some point this season, but given how serious patellar tendon injuries are and how hard they can be to come back from, no one knew exactly when Graham would be back or what it would look like when he did return. Graham wowed coaches and trainers with the way he approached his rehab, and was able to play, albeit on a limited basis, in Seattle's opener. Then when he put together back-to-back 100-yard games in Weeks 3 and 4, it was evident that Graham was on his way back to being one of the NFL's best tight ends.
"I can't tell you that I knew," Carroll said when asked what they thought Graham could do this season coming off of his injury. "I just knew how he went about it, and his attitude and the approach and his mentality throughout the offseason as we would communicate. He was just going for it. He had never worked so hard. He had never been hurt like this before. He just turned all of his focus and all of his dedication and just heart and soul into getting back, he just wanted to be back so badly. So when you're around him, you felt like he was coming back. It didn't feel like there was question. And he never didn't look good. When he got back to running, he looked good running around right from the start. He needed to gain strength, and some issues in his movement, but you couldn't really tell. We saw nothing but really good stuff from him, so when he eventually got back out, and we took a chance the way we handled the (physically unable to perform list). When he got back out, he's never looked anything but good.
"However, in the last four or five weeks, he has made a jump, and he looks better physically than we've ever seen him. He looks faster, more explosive, jumping higher than we had ever seen him. The payoff of all of this hard work is that he's in phenomenal shape, he's as lean as he's ever been, and he's just looked great. You can see it on the field, he continues to just play lights-out football."
Wilson, who is one of Graham's closest friends on the team, called Monday's performance, "crazy special," and having spent plenty of time in the training room this season battling his own injuries, Wilson knows how hard Graham has worked not just to get back, but to maintain this high level of play.
"He's a special player, his mindset is tough as nails," Wilson said. "He has been through it all, and he can hang with the best of them.
"How well he's playing form a serious injury, in my opinion, I'm not sure who else is out there, but in terms of a comeback player of the year, you just think about how special he has been. Play after play, catch after catch, the catches that he's making, his grit, his ability to overcome situations and obstacles, it's a true testament to the character of man that he is and the person that he is."
Graham now has 38 catches for 545 yards, both of which rank second on the team behind Doug Baldwin, and he leads the Seahawks with three touchdown catches and a 14.3 yard-per-catch average. But as impressive as those numbers are, and as amazing as Graham's comeback has been, he doesn't feel like he's reached his peak just yet.
"It's just going to get better and better," Graham said. "I'm excited. A lot of people didn't believe I'd come back; a lot of people didn't believe that I'd be able to be me again, so to go out there and do that tonight, it means a lot, because I put so much work in. When no one was watching, I was in the shadows working."
See some of the action from Monday Night Football, Seahawks vs Bills during Week 9 at CenturyLink Field.