Moments after Jimmy Graham was carted off the field with a knee injury, Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell had to give a play call to his quarterback. Graham's injury was unfortunate, to be sure, but the rest of the Seahawks offense still had a job to do.
Seattle was approaching the red zone in a tight battle with the Pittsburgh Steelers, and needed a touchdown to retake the lead. Facing second-and-10, Bevell made the call, and Russell Wilson dropped back and fired a strike over the middle to tight end Luke Willson, who hauled in a 12-yard reception that would help set up a Jermaine Kearse touchdown two plays later.
That Willson was the target on the first play after Graham's injury was hardly a coincidence.
"I think there's kind of a lot of subtle messages," Bevell said of the call. "One, to tell Luke that we have confidence in him. There's no question that we believe in him. He's been here. He's played at a high level for us, and he is appreciated. Two, that that's not just going to be, 'OK, that's dead now and that's not going to be part of their offense.' So there's all kinds of messages that you can send with that."
The Seahawks will absolutely miss Graham, who suffered a torn patellar tendon and is out for the season, but they also are confident in their ability to succeed on offense going forward without him. Seahawks coach Pete Carroll has always emphasized that he doesn't want a team that's overly reliant on one player—not a star receiver or tight end or even a quarterback—which is part of the reason his teams want to be balanced on offense and play good defense. It's why the Seahawks didn't overhaul their offense for Percy Harvin after acquiring him, or for Graham this season, and it's why Carroll doesn't want an offense that calls on a quarterback to throw 40 times per game. Because if you're that reliant on one player, what happens if that one player is suddenly unavailable?
"We're not going to change," Carroll said. "It may seem like it, but we didn't really change when Jimmy got here in essence, we just wanted to get the football there. We always thought we had the routes and the concepts to call on, and we just needed to put them in position so we could get that done. So we're not going to change much. I don't see us changing at all really."
In part, the Seahawks won't change for philosophical reasons, but they also don't feel the need to change because they have confidence in Willson, who will now take on a bigger role in the offense going forward. Willson, a fifth-round pick in 2013, has been here before, going from Seattle's No. 2 tight end last season to a nearly every-down player after Zach Miller went down with an ankle injury.
Willson joked that the only difference between last season and this one is that "I got a podium this year," for a press conference. But aside from that little detail, Willson said not much will be different with Graham sidelined other than a bit more playing time.
"I'll get a couple more third down looks in the 11 personnel, and in red-zone stuff," he said. "Other than that, I know it's boring, but nothing too crazy."
The Seahawks have confidence in their offense in part because they saw it function well with basically the same group of pass catchers it has now for much of last season following the Harvin trade: Willson, fellow tight end Cooper Helfet, and receivers Doug Baldwin, Jermaine Kearse and Paul Richardson, plus a dynamic rookie in Tyler Lockett. And the growth Willson has shown in his first three seasons is a big reason they are confident the tight end position can still be a big part of the offense even with a Pro Bowler on the sidelines. When Willson arrived in Seattle, he was considered the speedy, pass-catching complement to Miller's blocking ability, but over time Willson has improved greatly as a blocker—in no small part because of learning from Miller—and with Graham's arrival, he actually took on more of a traditional tight end role this season.
"I have tons of confidence in Luke," Bevell said. "We really ask him to do a lot of things. We've asked him to play the U position when he first got here, which is basically more of the running the routes and all different kinds of routes in the route tree, to moving him over to the Y position where he's used a lot more in the blocking. He's kind of at the point of attack more in the run game. You ask him to do different routes there at that Y position, so he's really just become a really well-rounded tight end in terms of we really can count on him to do just about anything that we ask him to do and know that he's going to do it pretty well."
Going back and forth between the two different tight end roles has been a challenge for Willson, but it is something that will now help the Seahawks going forward with Graham unavailable for the rest of the season.
"The toughest part has been the different roles," Willson said. "When we had Zach, I was more the down the seam guy, stretch the field. With Jimmy, I've became more of Zach. Just kind of going back and forth. That would probably be the toughest thing was learning both positions. There's little nuances to every little thing you do out there. I feel comfortable in both now and I know I'm only in year three, but I feel older. I think going to two Super Bowls, obviously experience-wise, helps a lot."
The Seahawks have relied on Willson and that experience already, and now they're confident they can do so again without the offense taking a step back.
"Luke's got plenty of confidence," Carroll said. "He's a vet now, he's been around. There's nothing that's going to surprise him now. He's really in the groove of it and he's ready to go. That was evidenced by he jumped right up to make a play the next snap, and away he goes. He'll be fine."