How Jimmy Graham made history with Gronk, wishes he never left Saints

Crystal LoGiudice/USA TODAY Sports

Now a journeyman tight end, Jimmy Graham sees what position-mate Rob Gronkowski is still doing with quarterback Tom Brady.

Graham can’t help but wonder “what could’ve been and what should’ve been” if he had stayed with Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints for more than five years. Instead, he was traded to the Seattle Seahawks in 2015.

“I don’t think anybody really benefitted from the trade,” said Graham, who is now with the Chicago Bears, his fourth NFL team, in his 12th season. “You got a guy like Gronk who’s been with his quarterback his entire career in the same offense, the same scheme. So for me it’s always one of those things where thinking about what could’ve been or what should’ve been with Drew is kind of the most disappointing.

“Maybe some of (the Saints’ playoff losses from 2017-2020) go the other way.”

With the Saints set to play at the New England Patriots on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, Fox), Graham spoke with ESPN recently about how he and Gronk helped revolutionize the tight end position 10 years ago when they both broke the 31-year-old single-season receiving record.

To be specific, Graham broke the tight end record first, finishing the Saints’ Week 17 win over the Carolina Panthers with 1,310 yards. Then Gronkowski came off the bench a few minutes later at the end of the Patriots’ blowout win over the Buffalo Bills to move ahead with 1,327.

Saints coach Sean Payton and offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr. both laughed at the memory of that game, with people chirping in their headsets to “Get Jimmy another catch.”

“Was I campaigning? Are you kidding me? Of course I was,” Graham recalled. “I remember them announcing over the intercom that I just broke the all-time (tight end) yardage record by Kellen Winslow Sr. But I did remember that the Patriots game started later than ours. … Then I hear they put Gronk in, and it just breaks my heart.”

Gronkowski's record stood for seven years before the Kansas City Chiefs and Travis Kelce and San Francisco 49ers' George Kittle started passing it back and forth.

Although Graham and Gronkowski were a dynamic duo in one sense, it was also a rivalry Graham took very personally.

“I’ve never told anybody this,” said Graham, who was drafted 95th overall in 2010 -- 53 picks after Gronkowski. “My first four years in the league, I actually had Gronk’s jersey hanging in my bedroom. I didn’t have a TV hanging in my room, I had Gronk’s jersey hanging in my room. Literally it was the only item I had hanging in my house. So every morning I had to wake up and I knew that I needed to get to work.

“I would say anybody and everybody needs some kind of a rivalry at some point, at least mentally to push yourself even more. And you know Gronk has always been that for me. And that’s kind of the sad part is I wish that I would’ve kind of been able to continue to work with that (Saints) system to see maybe what could’ve happened.”

‘Like a big giraffe’

Graham’s rise to superstardom was unexpected, considering the 6-foot-7, 265-pounder played basketball for four years at the University of Miami before playing one year of football. Although previous superstar tight ends like Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates also came from basketball backgrounds, Graham was enough of an unknown to fall to the end of Round 3 in the draft.

But his potential was evident throughout his rookie year, when he backed up Jeremy Shockey and finished with 31 catches for 356 yards and five touchdowns.

Graham said he’ll never forget when the Saints dialed up a 6-yard touchdown pass to him in the final minutes of a critical Week 16 win at Atlanta his rookie season.

“Sean Payton calls timeout, and we’re on the sideline and he asks Drew, ‘What do you want to do?’ And Drew says, ‘I want to throw it to the big kid,’” Graham recalled. “And I’m looking around like, ‘Who’s the big kid?’ You’ve got Shockey, (Lance) Moore, Devery (Henderson), (Robert) Meachem, (Marques) Colston, Reggie Bush. And I’m like, ‘Who the hell are they talking about?’ And all of a sudden I realize, ‘Oh sh--, that’s me.’

“So we go up there with the game on the line and call a slant route on the goal line, and I caught that and I guess the rest is history.”

That history evolved rapidly in 2011, when Payton and New Orleans’ offensive coaching staff began devising new plays and creating mismatches for Graham by the week.

“In 2010, we kind of had some little packages for him, but he was still kind of like a big giraffe running around out there,” Brees said. “Still not quite the feel for the game, but just crazy athletic and could do some freakish stuff. And then 2011 it was like, ‘Oh my gosh.’ All of a sudden you had this guy who had developed some understanding and some patience and some route-running ability.

“And he had like a fire and a chip on his shoulder that was just like he had something to prove every day in practice and the games and just a mindset like I had never seen before.”

Graham said he was fortunate to follow in the wake of all-time greats like Gonzalez and Gates. He also said one of Payton’s mentors, now Raiders coach Jon Gruden, was the inspiration for one of his early packages, which was named after Gruden's nickname, called the “Chucky package” - where the tight end would be isolated on the back side of a 3-by-1 formation.

“And then, really, kind of the science experiment began,” Graham said. “So it was really fun to be a part of so much of that kind of creation of what a tight end can do or should be doing on the field.”

The Saints’ offensive coaches got a big laugh while watching Monday Night Football one week when an announcer called another team’s coach a “genius” for drawing up a creative play design for a tight end -- even though the Saints had come up with the play a week earlier.

That kind of thing happens all the time in the NFL, but it was a good example of how much New Orleans was innovating what could be done at the position every week.

Payton would take different routes that were previously designed for receivers and say, “Hey, let’s see if 80 can do that.” Graham did it so often, it became a running joke among Saints players.

“Once (Graham) was going crazy, I remember pretty much everything being in for him,” Moore said.

‘Definitely set the stage’

Of course Graham is also remembered for his ill-fated arbitration battle in 2014 to be declared a wide receiver to increase the value of his franchise tag. He lost that dispute before signing a four-year, $40 million contract that was the richest in NFL history for a tight end at the time.

A year later, Graham was traded to Seattle. But if there was any tension between the two sides, it’s not evident today. Graham, Payton and Brees all look back fondly on their partnership.

The very first thing both Brees and Payton mentioned when asked about Graham was how remarkably good the Saints’ offense was in 2011 and how they should have won the Super Bowl that year.

“I’d be lying if I didn’t say I wondered what we could’ve been able to do together if we had the opportunity,” Brees said.

The Saints explained at the time that Graham was a valuable trade commodity who could help them land the resources to improve their offensive line, defense and salary cap. And Graham says today that he understands it was the “harsh reality of the business.”

Unfortunately for him, Graham suffered a major knee injury during his first season with the Seahawks and has never quite been physically the same.

However, he did catch 10 touchdown passes with Seattle in 2017 and eight with Chicago in 2020. And he ranks fourth among tight ends in NFL history with 82 touchdowns, sixth with 700 receptions and seventh with 8,350 yards.

He also made his mark as a pioneer for today’s top tight ends including Kelce, Kittle and Darren Waller. Graham said he is fascinated to see the way the position keeps evolving with things like bubble screens designed to get Kelce breaking tackles in space. And he said it’s “been fun to see all these young guys get paid.”

“Gronk and Jimmy did so much for the tight end position,” Kittle said. “Gronk, I think he kind of kicked the door down on being able to have a personality. And he really just kind of set the stage for, ‘As long as you play at a high level, you can be whoever you want to be.’

“Jimmy Graham did the same thing. I think he was a little bit quieter, but the plays that he made each and every Sunday, it was incredible. He wanted to go out there and get paid like a wide receiver, which I think he should have because of the things he did. But they definitely set the stage for all the tight ends that are still up and coming.

“Tight ends are just continuing to kick the door down.”

ESPN San Francisco 49ers reporter Nick Wagoner contributed to this report